The temperature danger zone, which is defined as the temperature range between which most bacteria grow and reproduce, is 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Because room-temperature turkey falls into this danger zone, it is not safe to leave a turkey at room temperature before cooking. If the turkey is fresh, leave it in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. If the turkey is frozen, there are safe ways to thaw it.
Knowing the Risks
When a turkey is left at room temperature, any bacteria present in the turkey are able to multiply, increasing in numbers at a very rapid rate. Some bacteria are even able to produce toxins, which cannot be destroyed through cooking. These factors increase the risk of developing food-borne illness from eating the turkey. Young children are especially susceptible to food-borne illness, so proper handling of a turkey is particularly important when children are involved.
If you are preparing fresh turkey, it is best to buy the turkey one to two days before you plan to serve it and to leave the turkey in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. Do not leave the turkey on the counter. Put the turkey in a tray or pan to catch any juices that leak from the turkey. If possible, place the turkey on the bottom of your refrigerator. This way, if juices leak, they will not contaminate any other foods in your refrigerator.
Safely Thawing Turkey
If you purchased a frozen turkey, leaving it out at room temperature is a potentially dangerous way to defrost it. There are three methods for thawing a turkey safely.
- The first method is to leave the turkey in the refrigerator until it is completely defrosted. This method takes the most planning, as you must make sure to allow ample time for the turkey to thaw out before you cook it. In general, allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.
- Another way to thaw a turkey is using cold water. This method is quicker than refrigerator thawing, but requires more care. Submerge the entire wrapped turkey in cold water. To make sure that the turkey does not get up to room temperature, change the water every half hour. When thawing turkey with cold water, you must cook the turkey immediately after it defrosts.
- The final method of thawing a turkey safely is the microwave oven. Remove any wrappings and place the turkey on a microwave safe dish. Use the defrost setting on your microwave, programming in the turkey’s weight. Once the turkey is thawed, cook immediately.
If you purchased a stuffed turkey, do not thaw it out prior to cooking. Because stuffed turkeys carry a higher risk of food-borne illness, they should be cooked in a frozen state. The USDA recommends buying only stuffed turkeys that contain a USDA or state mark of inspection, which indicates that the turkey is safe to eat.
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- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: Let's Talk Turkey
- CBS The Early Show: Tackling Your Thanksgiving Turkey
- "ServSafe Essentials"; National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation; 1999
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: Hotline Answers "Panic Button" Holiday Food Safety Questions
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: The Big Thaw -- Safe Defrosting Methods -- for Consumers
Lindsay Boyers has a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from Framingham State College and a certificate in holistic nutrition from the American College of Healthcare Sciences. She is also a licensed aesthetician with advanced training in skincare and makeup. She plans to continue on with her education, complete a master's degree program in nutrition and, ultimately, become a registered dietitian.