Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

This story was originally published in November 2020.

Thanksgiving is coming. Even if you’re planning a small meal with just your household, it’s important to remember safety when it comes to buying, cooking and serving your meal.

Fresh or frozen

When it comes to purchasing a Thanksgiving turkey, the big question is: fresh or frozen? Both can be good, but it’s important that you make smart choices given the time you have.

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When buying a fresh bird, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, plan on picking it up one or two days before Thanksgiving, so the freshness you paid for is there when cook it.

If a fresh turkey needs to be purchased more ahead of time, as long as they are properly frozen, they will maintain a good quality.

Frozen turkeys from the supermarket are another, often far less expensive, option and the key with any frozen bird is allowing enough time for it to thaw before cooking.

Safe thawing

According to Dr. Robson Machado, food science specialist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, there are three safe methods for thawing a frozen turkey.

“You can thaw it in your refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave,” Machado said. “Never leave it out to thaw at room temperature.”

That’s right. You absolutely shouldn’t leave that bird sitting on the counter to thaw. Why not? Thawing at room temperature takes place from the outside in, which allows the bacteria on the surface of the bird to grow during the thawing process.

A better choice is to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator — as long as you have the time to do so. It takes about 24 hours to thaw for every 5 pounds of turkey weight.

For a faster thaw, try the cold-water bath method to thaw your turkey. To do so, put the bird in a waterproof bag and then place the bagged bird into a sink or large bowl filled with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. It can take nine hours to thaw out a 16-pound turkey in cold water.

For the speediest thaw, use a microwave set on the defrost cycle — as long as your bird will fit. (Hint: If using a turkey in a sealed plastic bag, make sure there isn’t a metal fastener on the bag before starting the microwave). Plan on four- to seven minutes per pound of bird to thaw a turkey in a microwave, and be sure to cook it immediately after it’s thawed.

Safe cooking

Now, the main event of cooking the turkey. Spoiler alert: It’s not that hard.

“The safest way to cook a turkey is to make sure it gets to the proper internal temperatures,” Machado said. “It needs to be 165 degrees, and the [cooking] time will depend on the size of the bird.”

Machado said the best way to check for doneness is to place a meat thermometer in the thickest portion of the turkey’s chest muscle.

“As soon as it reads 165, it’s safe,” he said.

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Many people love stuffing, and the safest way to prepare and cook it is outside the bird. But if stuffing the bird is a must, do so at the last possible moment. Never stuff a turkey and then store it before cooking — that gives time for bacteria to grow.

Storing Thanksgiving leftovers

Once all the feasting has ended and the last guest has risen from the table, it’s time to deal with the leftovers.

“The leftovers can be refrigerated right away,” Machado said. “The biggest problem can be if you put hot things in the refrigerator it brings the entire temperature up so it will actually stop working for three to six hours and that can give time for everything inside the refrigerator to warm up and for bacteria to start multiplying.”

But since the leftover food is probably not that hot once the meal is over, he said it should not be an issue, so go ahead and refrigerate it right off.

Leftovers, Machado said, can last three to four days when properly refrigerated. After that, they can be frozen for up to a month.

And while there will be a roasted turkey on his own table for Thanksgiving, Machado said he plans on leaving the cooking to someone else.

“I don’t cook myself,” he said. “I can only talk about if it’s safe to eat, not how to make it delicious.”

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Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.