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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Keep Food Safety in Mind When Creating the Perfect Holiday Meal

LAS CRUCES - Although traditional holiday turkey can be roasted, grilled, smoked or deep-fried, cooks should follow basic precautions for safe thawing and cooking, said a food technology specialist with New Mexico State University.


"With each of these methods there are safety issues that people ignore, forget about or aren't even aware of," said Willis Fedio with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

Before turkey is prepared it needs to be properly thawed if it is not purchased fresh. There are three safe ways to thaw your turkey: in the refrigerator, in the microwave or under cold water.

Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the safest method. When thawing a frozen turkey in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours per five pounds of turkey. A large turkey may take several days to thaw. Leave the turkey in its original plastic wrapper and place it on a tray in the refrigerator. This will prevent drippings from contaminating other foods. The refrigerator should be set at 40 degrees.

In defrosting the turkey in the microwave, chefs should follow the manufacturer's instructions in the microwave oven manual. Since microwave ovens vary, this will help to determine what size turkey fits in the oven, minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing.

Cold water thawing should be done with the plastic wrap still on the turkey. If the wrapping is torn, place the turkey in another plastic bag, close securely, and then place in water that completely covers the bird. Thawing takes approximately 30 minutes per pound of turkey and the cold tap water should be changed every 30 minutes.

When thawing is complete, giblets should be removed and the turkey should be rinsed inside and out with cold water. Anything that comes in contact with the raw turkey, such as utensils, hands or cutting boards, should be washed in hot, soapy water, Fedio said.

"All of the cooking methods require the turkey temperature to reach 180 degrees before it is completely cooked," he said. "Remember to place a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey, which is the inner part of the thigh, to determine if the proper temperature has been met."

Barbecue grilling a turkey is similar to oven roasting, with the same basic preparation. After the turkey is prepared and put in a roasting pan, it should be placed on a preheated grill. The grill's lid should then be closed. Basting should be done every 15-20 minutes and water should be added if the pan begins to dry out. Even when the temperature of the meat has met the required safe temperature, it may have a slight pink tinge. Stuffing a turkey is not recommended for grilling.

"Since there is an uneven cooking temperature when barbecuing, the safe temperature may not be met to properly cook the stuffing," Fedio said.

Smoking a turkey is done at a low temperature and is recommended for smaller turkeys. Equipment should be thoroughly cleaned before starting the smoking process. A heat of 250-300 degrees should be maintained while cooking. "Placing a smoker in a shielded area away from winds helps to maintain a consistent cooking temperature," Fedio said. Charcoal and water should be added as needed to properly maintain the desired hot smoke needed to cook. Water-soaked hardwood or fruitwood can be added to enhance the flavor. Stuffing a turkey also is not recommended for smoking.

Deep frying a turkey is a trend that was started in the South and has been rising in popularity. Deep frying requires special equipment that can be purchased in kits from local discount stores from $50 to $90. To fry the turkey, chefs need approximately a 60 quart pot and five gallons of oil. The pot should not be too full because it can overflow when the turkey is put in.

"It should be fried outdoors, away from the house, wearing protective garb and with a fire extinguisher close by," Fedio said. Cooking time is three minutes per pound. The oil should be heated to 350 degrees and a candy thermometer should be used to measure the temperature.