How do I safely thaw my turkey for Thanksgiving?
Food must be kept at a safe temperature during "the big thaw." As soon as food begins to defrost and becomes warmer than 40 F, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply.
Foods should never be thawed or even stored on the counter, or defrosted in hot water. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer is in the "danger zone," between 41 F and 140 F, at temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.
Here are three safe ways to defrost:
l Refrigerator thawing. Planning is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved. A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every five pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts require a full day to thaw.
When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are several variables to take into account. Some areas of an appliance may keep the food colder than other areas. Food placed in the coldest part will require longer defrosting time.
Food takes longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 F than one set at 40 F. After thawing in the refrigerator, ground meat and poultry should remain usable for a day or two before cooking; red meat, three to five days.
Foods defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although quality may suffer.
l Cold water thawing. This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag.
If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, meat tissue can absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product.
The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small packages of meat or poultry about a pound may defrost in an hour or less. A 3- to 4-pound package may take two to three hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound.
After defrosting, refrigerate the food and cook it promptly. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.
l Microwave thawing. Follow the microwave manufacturer's instruction when defrosting a turkey. When microwave defrosting food, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwave defrosting.
Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and, indeed, may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.
Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.
How do I safely cook my turkey?
Let me first tell you what you should not do.
Do not cook your turkey in a low oven (below 325 F) for several hours or overnight. Instead, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 F.
Preheating the oven is not necessary. Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep.
Optional steps include: 1) Tuck wing tips back under shoulders of turkey. 2) Add 1/2 cup water to the bottom of the pan. 3) A tent of aluminum foil may be placed loosely over the turkey for the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours, then removed for browning. Or, a tent of foil may be placed over the turkey after the turkey reaches the desired golden brown.
For safety and uniform doneness of the turkey, cook stuffing separately in a casserole. Use a food thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the stuffing has reached 165 F.
If you choose to stuff a turkey, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey and the stuffing. The temperature of a whole turkey must reach 180 F in the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing must reach 165 F. If the stuffing has not reached 165 F, continue cooking the turkey until the stuffing reaches 165 F.
When cooking only a turkey breast, the internal temperature should reach 170 F. If the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, it also is recommended that a food thermometer be used to test in several places.
Time charts are based on fresh or completely thawed turkeys at a refrigerator temperature of 40 F or below. The cooking time for a frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer than a fully thawed turkey.
These cooking times are guidelines only. Use a food thermometer to determine safe doneness.
l Unstuffed: 4- to 6-pound breast, 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 hours; 6- to 8-pound breast, 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 hours; 8 to 12 pounds, 2 3/4 to 3 hours; 12 to 14 pounds, 3 to 3 3/4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds, 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours, 20 to 24 pounds, 4 1/2 to 5 hours.
l Stuffed: 8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3 1/2 hours; 12 to 14 pounds, 3 1/2 to 4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4 1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours;
Susan Krumm is an extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper. She can be reached at 843-7058.