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By Extension: Thanksgiving safety tips
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Thanksgiving — a time to celebrate and give thanks with family and friends. Although we don’t celebrate the harvest like first celebratory feast did in 1621, food is still a large part of the Thanksgiving celebration. For many of us it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without that one special dish, possibly a recipe that has been handed down for generations, along with turkey and gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce as the staples of the meal. So let’s talk turkey!

Turkeys are a large domesticated North American bird. A "hen" is the female and is generally smaller, while the "tom" is the male, both are equally tender. Turkeys that are labeled "fresh" are birds that have never been below 26°F. "Frozen" or "previously frozen" turkeys have been held at or below 0°F. Turkeys that you buy in a retail store should be inspected by the United State Department of Agriculture or by a state agency with equivalent standards. A "sell-by" date indicates how long the turkey should be displayed in the store. The turkey should be purchased before the "sell-by" date expires. The "use by" date indicates the last day the turkey should be used. This is a quality measure and not necessarily an indication of safety. Nutrition labeling is required of most turkey products, as well as safe handling instructions. If purchasing a whole turkey, plan on 1 pound per person, for a boneless breast allow ½ pound per person, ¾ pound per person for a breast of turkey and allow 1 ¼ pound per person for a pre-stuffed frozen turkey.

If you purchase a frozen turkey remember that the safest way to thaw that turkey is in the refrigerator. Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator requires planning. Thawing in the refrigerator takes about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw. Turkeys purchased fresh can be held safely in the refrigerator for one to two days, or according to the date on the manufacturer’s packaging.

There are many ways to prepare your turkey: roasting, grilling, smoking or deep frying. Whichever method you choose, make sure it is cooked to the proper internal temperature. What if your turkey meat is pink, is it safe to eat? The color of the turkey meat can remain pink even when cooked to safe temperatures. The only way to know for sure is to check with a calibrated food thermometer. As long as the turkey has reached a safe internal temperature of 165°F, you do not need to worry if your meat is pink.

What about the age old question — to stuff or not to stuff? It is best to cook your stuffing separately from the turkey. The stuffing needs to reach an internal temperature of 165°F for it to be safe. Often by the time the stuffing reaches this temperature the turkey is overcooked and dry. If you decide to go ahead and stuff the bird, do so just before cooking. Make sure that the stuffing is moist and stuff the turkey loosely. Take the internal temperature of the stuffing with a food thermometer and remember that a stuffed turkey takes longer to cook.

Okay — so you accidently left the paper or plastic wrapped giblets in the turkey during cooking. It can happen! Remove the giblets from the cooked turkey and carefully examine them. If they were wrapped in paper then there is no concern about the safety of the turkey. If they were wrapped in plastic examine the plastic to see if it has melted or been altered in any way. If there is evidence that the heat has altered the wrap do not eat the giblets or the turkey. If the plastic bag remained unaltered, the turkey should be safe to eat.

Whether an experienced pro or beginning novice preparing a delicious, safe meal requires handling your perishables safely — keeping them at room temperature for as short a time as possible, and cooking your food to the proper internal temperature — using a calibrated food thermometer to check those temperatures. Come by the Cooperative Extension office (1400 Parker Road, Lobby A, Conyers) with any questions you might have or to pick up a copy of Let’s Talk Turkey: A Consumer’s Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey.

The Rockdale County Cooperative Extension staff wishes everyone a safe and very happy holiday season!

Cindee Sweda is the Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent in the Rockdale County Extension Office.