Why you should never wash your turkey

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Avoid Washing Your Turkey, for Thanksgiving Dinner. There are a few ways to cook a turkey, but many health agencies warn not to wash it beforehand. Instead, they say drain liquid from the packaging and then pat the turkey down with paper towels. Be sure to also throw the packaging out after removing the turkey. When done with preparation, wash your hands with hot water and soap. Besides turkey, the USDA recommends not washing other types of raw meat before cooking. This includes beef, pork and poultry. The bacteria in raw meat and its juices is why the USDA recommends to avoid washing. Doing so risks the bacteria spreading to other food items and utensils. You can’t wash off bacteria with water, and rinsing out the turkey risks splashing its juices all over the sink, Consumer Reporters nutritionist Amy Keating, R.D., via food safety memo

Did you know that rinsing a raw turkey before placing it in the oven can do more harm than good?

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, washing that raw turkey can actually lead to cross-contamination and make you and your Thanksgiving guests quite sick.

"Many consumers think that washing their turkey will remove bacteria and make it safer. However, it's virtually impossible to wash bacteria off the bird. Instead, juices that splash during washing can transfer bacteria onto the surfaces of your kitchen, other foods and utensils," USDA officials warn.

How to safely handle your raw turkey this Thanksgiving

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling it.
  • Cook it to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit and check temperatures in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, plus the thickest part of the breast before serving.
  • If you notice raw turkey or turkey juice on your kitchen surfaces, wash the surfaces with hot, soapy water. You can also use a solution of 1 tablespoon unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.

According to Good Housekeeping, this rule should apply to all raw poultry, not just turkey.

Associate food editor Cathy Lo recommends patting raw poultry dry with paper towels instead.

How to store a turkey before it’s cooked

If you’ll be cooking your turkey within one to two days after you buy it, you can store it in the fridge in its original packaging. But if you won’t be serving it for a few days or more, it should be frozen, keeping it in its original wrapping.

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How to thaw a turkey

A frozen turkey will need to be thawed before it’s cooked, but it needs to be kept at a safe temperature while it’s thawing. Don’t leave it out to thaw on the counter, because if it’s left out for more than two hours, bacteria in it can grow rapidly. You can thaw your bird using any of the following methods:

Microwave: This method is ideal for small turkeys. Unwrap your turkey and check your microwave’s owner manual for defrosting times and the power you should use.

Refrigerator: Check out Betty Crocker’s thawing chart to see how much time you’ll need. Even small whole turkeys (three to four pounds) take about a day, so plan far ahead of time, because big birds take days to thaw.

Cold water: Put the turkey in a plastic bag and submerge it in cold water. You’ll need to keep the water cold by changing it every 30 minutes. This method takes about 30 minutes of defrosting per pound of turkey.

How to cook a turkey

Butterball recommends the following steps: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Drain the turkey’s juices, and pat it dry with paper towels.

Put the turkey, breast side up, in a shallow roasting pan. Tuck the wings back to help stabilize the turkey, and spray or brush its skin lightly with vegetable or cooking oil to help it get that nicely brown appearance.

Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer deep in the lower part of the thigh. When the temperature on your thermometer reaches 180 degrees, your turkey will be done. Put the turkey in the oven, and when it’s about two-thirds done, cover the breast loosely with a piece of aluminum foil to help prevent overcooking. When its thigh thermometer reads 180 degrees, remove your turkey from the oven and let it stand on a platter for 15 minutes before carving.

For approximate cooking times, check out Butterball’s chart, which lists times for stuffed and unstuffed turkeys by their weight.

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