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Let’s talk turkey (11/15/2006)
by Kathy Brandt

University of Minnesota Extension Service

Many of us will be cooking turkey during the holiday season, and the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is a great place to get your questions answered. Here are some of the hotline's most frequently asked questions.

1. What does "fresh" or "frozen" mean on a turkey label?

The term "fresh" may only be placed on raw poultry that has never been below 26 degrees F. Poultry held at 0 degrees F or below must be labeled "frozen" or "previously frozen." No specific labeling is required on poultry between 0 and 26 degrees F. Below 26 degrees F, raw poultry products become firm to the touch because much of the free water is changing to ice. At 26 degrees F, the product surface is still pliable and yields to the thumb when pressed. Most consumers consider a product to be fresh (opposed to frozen) when it is pliable or not hard to the touch.

2. What's the best way to defrost frozen turkey?

The USDA recommends three ways to safely defrost turkeys: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Never defrost turkey on the counter. It's safest to plan ahead for slow thawing in the refrigerator. Allow about one day for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. Turkey may be defrosted in cold water in its airtight packaging, or in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the bird in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to be sure it stays cold. Turkey defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the bird may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked poultry is not recommended because bacteria won't be destroyed.

3. Can turkey be partially cooked ahead of time, or put in the oven at a low temperature the night before serving?

Never brown or partially cook turkey to refrigerate and finish cooking later or place in a low oven to cook overnight. It is safe to partially cook or microwave turkey only if it is immediately transferred to a hot grill or hot oven to finish cooking.

4. What's the best way to roast turkey?

Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees F. Be sure turkey is completely thawed. Recommended cooking times on the label are based on fresh or completely thawed birds at a refrigerator temperature. For optimum safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing outside the bird in a baking dish. The center of the stuffing should reach a minimum of 165 degrees F. Turkey is safely cooked when the food thermometer reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Cooking turkey to higher temperatures yields a golden, tender bird. For quality, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set. The turkey will carve more easily.

Remember: Always wash hands, utensils, the sink, and anything else that comes in contact with raw turkey and its juices with soap and water. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours. For more information, contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m., or visit www.fsis.usda.gov. 


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