I really enjoy preparing for a family Thanksgiving dinner, but there's a lot to be done before the meal is on the table. Some planning and preparation ahead of time can make the process go more smoothly. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety specialists offer the following countdown to help ensure a safe and successful holiday celebration.
Start by planning the menu and gathering recipes. Check the pantry to see what is on hand and make a shopping list of the ingredients to be purchased. Make sure you have all the needed equipment, including a roasting pan large enough to hold the turkey or other meat. And, be sure you have a food thermometer. Try to use up the foods that are taking up space in the refrigerator and freezer so there will be plenty of room for the dishes you'll be preparing.
Thanksgiving (T) minus 6 (Friday): If you're planning to buy a frozen bird and haven't purchased it yet, buy it today so you have adequate time to thaw it in the refrigerator. For thawing a frozen turkey, move it into your refrigerator now. Leave the frozen bird in its original wrapper and place on a try to catch any juices that may leak from the package as the turkey thaws. Allow 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For example, a 16-pound turkey would take 3 to 4 days to thaw. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before cooking.
T minus 5 (Saturday): Do a thorough cleaning job on your refrigerator and other appliances. Sanitize countertops and cutting boards using a solution of 1 tablespoon unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
T minus 4 (Sunday): Be sure you have all the dishes, utensils, and chairs. Plan the Thanksgiving Day cooking timetable based on the size of the turkey or other meats.
T minus 3 (Monday): Breads and some vegetable side dishes can be made ahead. Store the side dishes in the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
T minus 2 (Tuesday): If buying a fresh turkey, this is the day to bring it home from the store. If you forgot to thaw the frozen turkey or don't have room in the refrigerator for thawing, don't panic. You can submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. Cook immediately after thawing.
T minus 1 (Wednesday): Don't even think of pulling an all-nighter with your turkey. It's not safe to cook a turkey all night at 200 degrees. Nor is cooking the turkey in a paper bag recommended. The minimum oven temperature is 325 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure any bacteria are destroyed. Prepare wet and dry stuffing ingredients ahead of time and refrigerate them separately. Don't combine the ingredients until just before cooking the stuffing -- inside or outside the turkey.
T (Thanksgiving Day): If you still need to thaw your turkey, microwave thawing is probably your only option now. Check the manufacturer's instructions for the size turkey that will fit into your oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Cook immediately after thawing.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before placing it in the oven. Eliminating this step reduces the risk of cross contamination from rinse water being splashed around the sink and on the adjoining counter or other foods. Heat during the roasting process will kill any bacteria present.
The Extension office on the first floor of the courthouse has all the most current information on thawing, stuffing, cooking, and handling leftover turkey. These fact sheets are also available on the web at www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets.