Cooking a turkey? Avoid these mishaps


If you’re like most people, you’re planning on cooking a turkey for the holidays. To keep your holiday meal pleasant and safe, avoid these common kitchen mishaps.

Not enough turkey to go around.The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends allowing 1 pound of turkey per person. Sound like a lot? Sure, but remember that part of the weight is bone, fat that you’ll trim away, and skin that you should avoid. Plus you’ll want to have some of those delicious leftovers.

Turkey not defrosted properly. If you purchase a frozen turkey, keep it frozen until ready to thaw. The USDA recommends these ways of thawing turkey:

  • Thaw in the refrigerator, in the original wrapper and on a tray to catch any drips. Allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. So, for example, a 10-pound bird will take about 2 days to thaw.
  • Or thaw totally submerged in cold water, in a clean sink, in the original wrapper. Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound. Change the water every 30 minutes. A 10-pound bird will take about 5 hours to defrost this way.

Once your turkey is thawed, remember to remove the giblets and rinse the bird inside and out with cold running water.

Risky food handling. Poultry products are primary sources of the bacteria Salmonella and Campylobacter — the two most commonly reported causes of food poisoning. Play it safe by using soap and water to wash everything that comes in contact with raw turkey — utensils, cutting board, the sink, counter tops and your hands. And don’t cross-contaminate — anything that the raw turkey touches should not touch other items and vice versa.

Under- or overcooked turkey. Everyone wants a juicy savory turkey. There are recipes galore — some use low temperatures (no lower than 325 F) or high heat (450 F). Whatever recipe you choose, the bottom line is to use a meat thermometer. The turkey is done when its internal temperature is 165 F. Begin checking for doneness about a half an hour before the recipe says the turkey will be done. Use a thermometer and check the temperature in the thickest part of the inner thigh, under the wing, and in the thickest part of the breast. Don’t rely on a “pop-up” temperature button — this indicates only when the breast is done. To keep breast meat from drying out during cooking, put a tent of aluminum foil over the bird and baste often with pan juices.

Dried-out bird. The trick is to give it a rest. After the turkey comes out of the oven, let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Allowing the turkey to rest lets the meat fibers relax, which means the juices will evenly distribute throughout the meat and the meat increases its water-holding capacity. Resting will make the turkey easier to carve and reduce the amount of fluid lost during carving. Remember to cover the bird with foil and to use a preheated platter for the turkey.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you’ll have a safer, tastier and enjoyably memorable holiday meal.

By Jennifer Nelson, M.S., R.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.   (Reviewed 2013)