November 2021

· 3 min read

The 9 Biggest Turkey Cooking Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

It’s time to talk turkey. Our experts share the biggest mistakes that can happen, along with recommendations for serving up a delicious and safe holiday meal.
Woman getting a turkey out of the oven - 9 Tips to Avoid the Biggest Turkey Cooking Mistakes | NSF

For many people, the holidays are filled with pressure. You’re hosting family and friends, preparing a festive dinner — and you want everything just right. You may envision serving a juicy, golden brown and delicious turkey, the centerpiece of a celebration for your guests that’s worthy of a classic movie.

But before you start carving, here’s a quick caveat: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that most outbreaks of a bacteria that causes food poisoning occur in November and December. Many of those outbreaks have been linked to common holiday foods such as turkey, chicken and other poultry.

“Food-borne illnesses are no joke,” Lisa Yakas, a senior project manager at NSF. “Just like the ongoing pandemic, food poisoning is most risky for vulnerable people, such as the elderly.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be difficult to enjoy a safe holiday meal. Here, our experts walk you through the most common holiday dinner mistakes, with tips on for preparing turkey, chicken and other poultry — the centerpiece of your table and menu.

  1. 1

    Keep the Bird Dry

    Don’t wash or rinse raw turkey. Experts recommend not washing poultry as the juices can spread and contaminate other foods, utensils and countertops.

  2. 2

    Wash Up

    Though you won‘t be washing your turkey, do make sure you wash your hands. Germs and illnesses spread easily from personal contact. Wash hands with warm soapy water, scrubbing for 20 seconds before and after handling food, especially when handling raw items.

  3. 3

    Allow Time to Thaw

    Not allowing enough time to defrost your turkey completely is the number one turkey mistake. A 10-pound turkey needs to thaw in the refrigerator for three to four days.

  4. 4

    Thaw Safely

    Thawing your turkey on the counter is a no-no. After two hours at room temperature, it can become unsafe. Bacteria can grow rapidly in the “danger zone” between 40° F and 140° F (8° C and 60° C outside the US). Thaw in the refrigerator in a large bowl, in a leakproof plastic bag of cold water (changing the water every 30 minutes) or in a microwave, following the turkey’s cooking directions.

  5. 5

    Handle With Care

    It’s important to avoid having your turkey contact other food. In fact, raw poultry can contaminate anything it touches with harmful bacteria. Use separate cutting boards, utensils and cookware for raw and cooked foods.

  6. 6

    Take the Temperature

    Use a food thermometer to verify that the center of the stuffing, the breasts, thighs and legs are all cooked to 165° F (70° C). Even if your turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, you should still use a food thermometer to check that it is safely cooked.

  7. 7

    Check On the Stuffing

    Cook stuffing separately from the turkey in a casserole dish, and it’s easy to be sure it’s thoroughly cooked. If you cook stuffing inside the turkey, put the stuffing in the turkey just before cooking. With either cooking method, use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165°F (70° C).

  8. 8

    Put Food Away Fast

    Leftovers shouldn't be left at room temperature for longer than two hours. Slice your turkey before storing in the refrigerator to allow for more even cooling. Cover and cool meat to room temperature before putting it in the fridge, then store for up to three days.

  9. 9

    Treat Leftovers Right

    When reheating, make sure the temperature is 165° F (70° C) or above. You can bring leftovers out of the fridge to room temperature before warming up. And of course, you can also eat them cold.

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