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To Cook a Turkey Safely, Do Not Begin by Thawing It in the Bathtub

Real life turkey tales and cooking tips

For 30 years, the women of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line have heard it all. From the person who wanted to thaw the turkey in the bathtub while the kids were bathing (don't even think about doing this) to the ones who think using the high-heat cleaning cycle on the oven will help speed up the turkey cooking process (no, no, NO), the Talk-Line experts have calmly given advice and suggestions on the safest way to prepare Thanksgiving's most popular main dish.

The more than 50 women — all professionally trained home economists and nutritionists — will handle 100,000 calls in November and December, including some 12,000 on Thanksgiving Day.

Their counterparts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline have been doing the same thing for more than 25 years and have their own tales to tell.

Some stand-out moments among the 2 million calls the government experts have answered: The man who tried to brine his turkey in the washing machine. And the woman who roasted a turkey inside a plastic dry-cleaning bag because she didn't have a cooking bag. "The plastic melted on the turkey and there was a really bad chemical smell. We had to tell the woman it was unsafe to serve and she should throw it out," recalls hotline food safety specialist Kathy Bernard.

Here are answers to some of the commonly asked questions to both hotlines:

  • How to thaw: The best way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator on a tray to prevent any uncooked juices from dripping onto others foods. Plan on about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird. You can speed the thawing by placing the wrapped turkey breast side down in a sink of cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. You can thaw a smaller turkey in the microwave oven, but then you should cook the turkey immediately because some areas do start to cook during the defrost process.

  • Keep it clean: Wash hands, work surfaces, and utensils touched by raw meat and its juices with hot, soapy water.

  • Oven temperature: No lower than 325 degrees to kill any harmful bacteria.

  • Turkey temperature: At least 165 degrees internally on a food thermometer, according to the USDA. Insert thermometer in three places to check the temperature: in the thick, innermost part of the thigh, in the wing joint, and in the thickest part of the breast. All should read 165 degrees minimum. If there's stuffing, it also should be at least 165 degrees.

  • The stuffing question: Should you stuff the bird or not? The safest way to cook stuffing is outside the turkey. Cook it in a casserole dish at 325 degrees to 165 degrees. If you do stuff the turkey, stuff it loosely so it can heat properly. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, because heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Use about 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey. Most important, begin cooking the turkey immediately after stuffing it. A stuffed turkey also takes about 30 minutes longer to cook. Check the stuffing temperature to make sure it has reached 165 degrees.
  • How big a bird to buy: If you want ample leftovers, figure on about 1 1/2 pounds per person. Otherwise, plan for a pound per person.

  • Handy guide: Unsure how long to roast that 25-pound bird? Or how big a bird you'll need to serve the 10 hungry people coming to your home for dinner? Use this handy calculator from Butterball that you can personalize with your own info to figure out how big a bird to buy and how long to thaw and cook it.

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.

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