Dear readers: This week's column answers last-minute queries I've received from a number of you, over the years, about handling, roasting and carving a whole turkey. It's timely, as many of you will be cooking a bird today or Monday to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Q: I put my frozen turkey in the fridge to thaw but it's still partially frozen. What should I do?
A: Don't thaw turkey on a kitchen counter at room temperature, as the exterior will thaw first and bacteria may grow there before the centre is thawed. The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in a sided container in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours of thawing time for every 2.2 kilograms of bird. If you did that, woke up this morning and noticed the turkey you'll cook later today was still partially frozen, then use the other suggested safe way to finish thawing it.
According to the B.C. Turkey Farmers website, bcturkey.com, you should set the turkey in a large container and cover completely with cold water. Change the cold water at least every hour until the turkey is thawed. This method thaws the bird faster than the thaw-in-the-refrigerator technique, so if you get the partially frozen bird into the water early on, it should be ready to go when needed. Refrigerate the turkey again once thawed.
Q: I stuffed my turkey, but the stuffing didn't feel hot when I removed it from the cooked bird. Why did this happen? Is this OK?
A: You can make dressing for turkey and bake it separately, but many prefer to stuff the mixture into the bird because it will enhance the flavour of it and the turkey. If you do that, stuff the turkey as near to roasting time as you can. When filling the main cavity, make sure it's fairly loosely stuffed; don't jam it in.
Even after the bird is cooked, if the stuffing is very compacted it may not have gotten hot enough to kill any potential bacteria that may have seeped into it from the raw turkey juices.
When stuffing the turkey, remember that you can also fill the cavity behind the large flap of skin at the bird's neck end. Remove the stuffing shortly after the bird is cooked. If the stuffing does not feel hot, bake until it reaches a bacteria-killing 165 F (74 C) when tested with an instant-read kitchen thermometer. If the stuffing does feel piping hot when you remove it, simply keep it warm in a 200 F oven until it's ready to serve.
After stuffing the turkey, any dressing that did not fit into the bird can be baked in a covered, buttered casserole dish. It will take about 30 to 45 minutes to heat it through, depending on the size and depth of the dish and how much stuffing you have. To create a golden-topped stuffing, uncover the dish during the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking time.
Q: Do you have to baste a turkey?
A: Some food authorities say you can put the turkey in the oven and not open the oven door until it's cooked - no basting is required, as it will naturally take on a nice golden colour.
Others say the bird must be basted to ensure it stays moist and takes on an even richer colour. However, if you frequently baste the bird, every time you open the oven you're losing heat and therefore extending the cooking time.
As noted in my just-published book, Everyone Can Cook Everything, I take an in-between approach. I let the turkey roast undisturbed until my first temperature check (see below), which usually comes at a time when the bird is not quite cooked. Since I've opened the oven door to test the bird, it makes sense to baste it with those wonderful pan juices, as I find it enhances the colour and taste of the bird.
Q: When should I start checking for doneness?
A: No two turkeys are shaped exactly the same. Some birds have plumper breasts, others leaner legs, or vice-versa. Because of that, even if the turkeys have the exact same weight, cooking time can vary from bird to bird. For that reason, I'll start checking for doneness about one hour before the end of the recommended roasting time. That way I can see if it's cooking faster than expected and plan the preparation of my other dishes accordingly.
An unstuffed turkey is cooked when an instant-read kitchen thermometer inserted deep into the inner thigh, not touching the bone, registers 170 F (77 C). The temperature of a stuffed turkey should be 180 F (82 C). I don't have room here, but you'll find a roast-turkey cooking chart at the B.C. Turkey Farmers website noted above. The chart will tell how long it will take to cook your size of turkey.
Q: How do you carve a turkey?
A: Once it's cooked, transfer the turkey to a large, sided baking sheet or platter. If you've stuffed the bird, remove the stuffing now and handle as described above. Tent the turkey with foil and rest at least 15 minutes to set the juices.
To carve the bird, using a sharp thin-bladed knife, remove the leg and wing on one side of the turkey. Cut that leg into drumstick and thigh pieces and then slice the meat off them. Carve the breast by making thin, slightly angled, vertical slices running parallel to the breastbone. Repeat these steps on the other side of the turkey, stopping when you have enough meat for the meal.
Q: How long can I keep turkey leftovers?
A: To be the most food-safe, it's best to remove any leftover turkey meat from the carcass of the now-room-temperature bird as soon after the meal as you can and get it refrigerated. The same holds true for any leftover sliced meat.
I keep the leftover meat in the refrigerator two to three days to enjoy in sandwiches, or to store until ready to turn into soup or other dishes. The leftover meat can also be cut as desired and frozen in freezer containers or bags for up to two months. firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Akis is the author of the bestselling Everyone Can Cook series of cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
Do you have a culinary query you would like Eric Akis to tackle in a future column? Send your questions by email to email@example.com or mail to Ask Eric, Times Colonist, 2621 Douglas St., Victoria, V8T 4M2.
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