The Biggest Thanksgiving Turkey Mistakes, According To Food Safety Experts

The last thing you want to do is put anyone at risk of getting a foodborne illness, but it happens.
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You’ve purchased a Thanksgiving turkey and the fixings to accompany it. You’re feeling anxious as you slowly cross all the items off your to-do lists as you get closer to the day of preparation and cooking. Food safety is likely far from your mind as you’re focused on having enough side dishes, drinks and desserts for everyone. But it shouldn’t be.

“When you’re preparing a holiday meal, usually for a larger group of people, you’re preparing more food and you’re a little bit more rushed,” said Keith Schneider, a food safety professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. “You may be more prone to make mistakes.”

The last thing you want to do is put anyone at risk of getting a foodborne illness. According to Joshua Resnick, lead chef at the Institute of Culinary Education who is fully certified in food protection by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “In the case of a large bird, you’re normally feeding a big crowd and don’t want to get a lot of people sick. You definitely want to keep safety in mind as much as flavor.”

HuffPost spoke with food safety experts on the biggest mistakes people make when preparing and cooking turkey and what to do instead.

Not Washing Your Hands

Washing your hands with hot water and soap should be the first thing you do before you begin any food preparation, especially when cooking a large meal. Experts say people sometimes forget this basic step when handling raw turkey.

“People don’t even realize that they’ll rub their noses, they’ll run their fingers through their hair or wipe the sweat from their brow as they’re preparing a meal for 20 people,” Schneider said. “And not realize what they’re doing.”

Be prepared to wash numerous times when preparing and cooking turkey. “Wash your hands at least 20 to 30 seconds each time you handle the turkey and it’s in a raw state,” advised Ray Campbell, a health and safety manager at Tulane University’s dining services program.

Make sure there's plenty of room in your refrigerator for your turkey to thaw.
GMVozd via Getty Images
Make sure there's plenty of room in your refrigerator for your turkey to thaw.

Thawing Your Turkey Anywhere But The Fridge

Proper thawing is key to even cooking and eliminating pathogens.

“You should never, ever thaw the turkey or other foods on the counter. Thaw your turkey in the refrigerator,” said Darin Detwiler, a professor of food policy and corporate social responsibility at Northeastern University and author of ”Food Safety: Past, Present, and Predictions.”

And according to Campbell, “Bacteria, germs and other harmful pathogens grow at an alarming rate when the turkey is thawed at room temperature.”

Defrosting a turkey requires preparation, space in your fridge and a minimum of 24 hours or longer, depending on the size of the bird. Check out our guide on how long it takes to thaw every size of turkey. “It’s amazing how many people try to thaw turkey really quickly,” Detwiler commented. Doing so puts you at risk for a foodborne illness.

There’s a rule of thumb to know just how long it will take to defrost the turkey. “You need 24 hours for every four to five pounds of a bird,” Campbell explained. “So if you got an 8-to-10-pound turkey, you need about 48 hours.” Don’t count the days, count by the hour to make sure it’s fully defrosted. “Some people take out the turkey on Thursday but they may have put it in on Wednesday at 6 o’clock in the evening and now it’s Thursday morning, at 8 o’clock,” he said. “That’s not 24 hours.”

Cooking Frozen Turkey

If you’re thinking, who cares if part of the turkey is frozen, it will cook in the oven, you’ll want to think again. A frozen turkey will cook unevenly, so you’ll have overcooked and undercooked meat.

“They put it in the oven without it thawing completely, leading to parts of the meat overcooking by the time everything reaches a safe temperature. Or they temp it improperly and end up serving undercooked meat,” Resnick said.

Allowing Your Thawing Turkey Juices To Drip Into Your Fridge

While thawing a turkey in the fridge, make sure you place it on top of a tray to catch any liquid and avoid cross-contamination.

“I recommend keeping the turkey in the original wrapping and putting it inside another container or on a two-inch pan or something of that nature,” Campbell explained. This will catch any liquids and prevent them from dripping and potentially spreading pathogens in the fridge.

“Put the turkey on top of a tray with a lip so that if there are any juices, they don’t drip down and get into things that are not cooked, like your salad ingredients,” Detwiler said.

Washing Your Turkey

Some people always wash their poultry before cooking, while some have never heard of the practice. Food safety experts warn that washing turkey is a fantastic way to spread a lot of bacteria throughout your kitchen. There are more risks washing your bird than if you were to not wash it.

Washing a turkey or chicken is not a “kill step,” an operative word in the food industry for preventing a foodborne pathogen. “If there are pathogens on the turkey, it just spreads around your kitchen,” Detwiler said. “Your entire sink area now is basically a contaminated danger zone.”

And it’s not only your sink you need to be concerned about. Campbell added, “Surfaces, such as sinks, countertops, dishes, dish towels and dish racks can become contaminated.”

If you or your family have always washed poultry, it can be easy to think it’s a necessary part of food preparation. Schneider explained that this is a common reason people continue to wash meat. “One of the things we run into is that most people tend to have a false sense of security because they’ve done something for so long, and no one’s gotten ill so it reinforces that behavior,” he said. “Washing is not going to make the bird safer.”

Schneider knows habits can be hard to break, so he recommends that if you still plan to wash your meat, don’t use high pressure to rinse the turkey and thoroughly clean your kitchen. “Make sure that you sanitize afterwards so that you don’t potentially cross-contaminate your cutting board, utensils and other things in the kitchen,” he said. He recommends using an antibacterial kitchen cleaner that kills 99.9% of bacteria.

Make sure you rotate your turkey partway through cooking in the oven.
GMVozd via Getty Images
Make sure you rotate your turkey partway through cooking in the oven.

Just Letting The Turkey Sit In The Oven

Ovens don’t have an equal temperature throughout. Rotating the turkey while it’s cooking will help it cook thoroughly. If you just place the pan in the oven and wait until it’s done, it’s likely that some parts of the turkey will cook faster than others.

“The best way to ensure that your bird cooks evenly and to a proper temperature would be to rotate the bird, as ovens have hot and cool zones, to ensure an even cooking,” Resnick said.

Not Using A Meat Thermometer

Cook meat frequently at home? A meat thermometer should be in your kitchen. Checking the temperature is the only way to know if the turkey is cooked thoroughly. Similar to chicken, you don’t want to eat slightly raw turkey. “Harmful pathogens can be present in undercooked turkey,” Campbell said. According to Science Direct, pathogens in raw turkey can include campylobacter, clostridium perfringens and salmonella.

“People should use a food-grade thermometer, not the so-called pop-up kind to ensure that an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit has been met,” Campbell explained. When the bird has reached the minimum temperature it’s going to inactivate the microbes.

Wondering where to insert your meat thermometer? Measure the temperature in the thickest areas of the turkey for the most accurate results. “Always insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey, usually the breast, or where the body of the bird joins the thigh or wing joint,” Campbell advised.

Resnick recommends taking multiple readings, too. “People will temp one part of the turkey and go off of one reading instead of checking in multiple spots and ensuring that everything is cooked through properly.”

Stuffing The Turkey

If you always stuff your turkey, you’ve likely participated in debates about this contentious topic. Campbell knows this well as he prefaced his comments by saying, “Most of the older generation might not like this because it kind of goes against tradition: It’s safer to cook stuffing outside of the turkey instead of stuffing the turkey.”

To make sure potential pathogens haven’t survived, “the internal temperature of the stuffing needs to reach 165 degrees at its center,” Campbell said. The reason is rooted in science. “When you put a very spongy bread stuffing inside the bird, as it cooks the water evaporates and you get evaporative cooling, but the stuffing inside of the bird where a lot of the pathogens hideout will remain slightly cooler than the environment around it,” Schneider explained.

This is why food safety experts say stuffing should be cooked separately. “Cook stuffing in a casserole dish, regular baking pan or aluminum baking pan,” Campbell said.

Need a roasting pan? It’s something many people forget. Snag one now before the big day with our top picks below!

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Cuisinart MultiClad Pro tri-ply stainless 16-inch roaster
This roasting pan is winner for both America's Test Kitchen and Wirecutter. ATK noted that it seared meat without buckling or burning and gave veggies an even, golden-brown crust, while its flat bottom aided with deglazing. Wirecutter said it cooked more evenly than others in its price range, noting it could handle a 20-pound turkey. "We can’t find another roasting pan that can sear as well on the stove and roast as evenly in the oven for under $100," its testers reported.
Viking 16-inch culinary roaster with two-piece carving set
ATK lists Viking's 16-inch tri-ply roaster among its recommendations, noting that although their pan is heavier than some others, it's also "handsome" and "durable." This version at Amazon, which can handle a turkey up to 25 pounds, comes with a matching carving knife and serving fork.
Cooks Standard 16-inch stainless steel roaster
This pan in the 14-inch size was America's Test Kitchen's "best buy" pick for small roasters with racks, but it no longer available. But this 16-inch size is made of the same materials, only two inches bigger, and may be all smaller households need (and prove to be a more versatile size year-round). Testers noted that although not made with tri-ply, the 14-inch model was thick enough to still retain and control heat well.
All-Clad HA1 hard-anodized nonstick roaster and rack
Consider this an expert pick by Amazon buyers, because this All-Clad hard-anodized nonstick roaster has an impressive 4.8-star rating from users — and it's on sale right now as an early Black Friday deal. The 16-inch size is perfect for family-sized birds and vegetables, and the sleek, curved roaster has tall straight sides and double-riveted handles to make it both chic and heavy-duty, with all the quality you expect from All-Clad. It's oven-safe to 500 degrees and works with any stovetop, including induction.
Le Creuset stainless steel 14-inch roasting pan
This was an ATK winning recommendation for small roasting pans, based on the way it turned out "beautiful" browned food. The body is tri-ply, the V-shaped rack is nonstick, and unlike some others, this roaster works on induction cooktops. The smaller size will be versatile year-round.
All-Clad stainless steel flared roasting pan
The top performer in Wirecutter's tests, both in the oven and on the stovetop, is this premium roaster that's exclusive to Williams Sonoma. Testers praised it for producing the most golden, crispy skin and for the low, flared sides helping to disperse heat evenly. Some cooks prefer the flat rack, too, since it can be a bit more versatile for other cuts of meat. The only catch is that it's more expensive than others, leading Wirecutter to name it their "upgrade" pick.
A nonstick roasting rack to use with a rimmed baking sheet
If you don't have the budget or space for a roaster, don't panic: We've even roasted a turkey on rolled-up aluminum foil in a pinch. A better option, as Serious Eats points out, is to buy a rack like this one to use with a rimmed baking sheet you already have in your kitchen. Just be very, very careful when you're moving your bird to and from the oven, especially if you've got hot juices sloshing near the rim of your pan.
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