To have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving Day meal with family and friends, proper food safety precautions should be taken to avoid foodborne illness, said Minh Duong, a postdoctoral associate in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food Science and Technology.
“It’s vital to clean throughout the cooking process and to not accidentally cross-contaminate surfaces during holiday food prep,” says Duong.
When preparing the classic holiday turkey, Duong says there are important steps to take to ensure a tasty – yet safe – experience for all. The only pain you experience on Thanksgiving Day should be from overeating, not foodborne illness.
For example, Duong says not to wash a turkey prior to cooking.
“Washing raw poultry won’t kill bacteria, but cooking to the proper internal temperature will,” according to Duong. “Washing your turkey could cause harmful bacteria to be sprayed onto nearby counters and throughout your kitchen.”
Duong says it’s also important to buy a fresh turkey and try not to purchase more than one to two days in advance. Keep it stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in a tray or pan to catch any juices that may leak.
Frozen turkeys should be kept in the freezer until they are ready to thaw and be cooked. Thawing in the refrigerator will require about 24 hours for every five pounds. A turkey can be quickly thawed with these techniques, according to Duong:
Submerge the turkey in a container of cool water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Plan to allow it to soak for 30 minutes per pound.
Before committing to thawing your turkey in the microwave, make sure to check the owner’s manual for the size turkey that will fit, the minutes per pound, and the power level. A general rule is to allow six minutes per pound.
A proper internal temperature for the turkey is required to ensure that all bacteria are killed and the meat is safe to eat.
“Using a digital tip-sensitive food thermometer is the only way to know that your turkey is done,” says Duong. “Looking at it, seeing if the juices run clear, or cutting it open and looking at color does not tell you it’s safe. Poultry like turkey and chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165°F. Check the temperature in three spots: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wings, and the innermost part of the thigh.”
This oft-forgotten internal temperature rule also applies to stuffing, which also must reach 165 degrees in multiple places. To avoid overcooking the turkey while trying to properly cook the stuffing, Duong recommends cooking the stuffing separately.
Another important theme, Duong says, is cleaning. Cleaning of surfaces, hands, and anything that comes into contact with raw meat will help prevent the spread of foodborne bacteria through cross-contamination.
The final piece to an enjoyable Thanksgiving Day meal that provides for days ahead is properly storing the leftovers. Leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours, and any large pieces of turkey should be broken down and refrigerated in shallow containers to allow for quicker cooling, says Duong. All leftovers should be eaten within three to four days or frozen.
Minh Duong is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Food Science and Technology and a member of Renee Boyer’s food safety and extension lab. His research focuses on food safety education and communication. He received his Ph.D. in food science and technology from Virginia Tech in 2021, his master’s degree in food science from North Carolina State University, and his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Virginia Tech.