Buying fresh turkeys too early. "If they buy fresh, they usually buy much too early -- more than two days prior to Thanksgiving," says Berry. You can only keep a fresh turkey refrigerated one to two days before cooking. (However, a whole frozen turkey can be stored in your home freezer at 0 & deg; Fahrenheit for up to 1 year.)
Cross-contamination. "Don't put raw meat or poultry with raw vegetables," says Rosenblatt. Although you may not intentionally have these items in contact, if it happens, there is high risk of cross-contamination, and that can cause food poisoning. Wash your hands and the food preparation surface thoroughly between preparing the turkey and a salad, for example.
Thawing a frozen bird at room temperature. This can lead to a potentially unsafe turkey. As the turkey starts to defrost, bacteria will grow on the surface, multiplying to high levels that may not be destroyed during cooking. There are three proper ways to thaw, according to Rosenblatt. One is in the refrigerator, allowing 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey. An eight-pound bird would take one to two days to thaw. If you need a quicker way, use cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. The same eight-pound bird would take about four to six hours to defrost this way. The third method, Rosenblatt says, is to microwave the turkey "if you can get it in there." Follow the manufacturer's directions and roast immediately after thawing.
Partial cooking or prestuffing the night before. Do not partly cook a turkey, because interrupted cooking may increase bacterial growth. Do not prestuff, either, because that can also create a hotbed for organisms to multiply. In addition, the cavity of the bird insulates the stuffing and may prevent it from heating to the proper temperature. If you want a jump on Thanksgiving dinner, Berry recommends premixing the dry and wet stuffing ingredients (to prevent cross-contamination) and storing them in separate containers the night before.
Overstuffing the turkey. You'll either wind up with undercooked stuffing or an overcooked bird because you'll have to cook beyond the cooking time for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature. The National Turkey Federation recommends cooking the stuffing separately from the turkey because improper handling and inadequate cooking of stuffed birds can increase the possibility of food poisoning.
Cooking the turkey at low temperatures overnight. Cooking a turkey below an oven temperature of 325 & deg; is unsafe because temperatures lower than this may encourage bacteria to grow inside the turkey where temperatures could stay below the danger zone of 140 & deg;.
Cooking the turkey ahead of time and letting it sit in the refrigerator. Cooking a turkey ahead of time is all right, but leaving it whole in the refrigerator is not recommended because a cooked bird is just too big to cool quickly enough in a home refrigerator. The solution is to remove the stuffing if the turkey is stuffed, and to carve the turkey and store the slices in covered shallow pans in the refrigerator. When reheating the slices, reheat to 165 & deg;.
Forgetting the food thermometer. Both Berry and Rosenblatt say a food thermometer is a must. "Temperature is the true indicator that the turkey is done. Time is just a gauge," Rosenblatt says. "Everyone wants to make sure their turkey is moist and pretty. When it's done, it's done. The temperature is going to tell you it's ready." Here's a word of caution on relying on cookbooks. Rosenblatt says temperatures have changed for cooking turkeys. Today they take a shorter time to cook. That's because they have more white meat and white meat cooks faster. "Throw away the cookbook and use the thermometer," she says.
So what is the right temperature? The turkey should reach an internal temperature of at least 180 & deg;. The thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of the thigh between the leg and the breast. If cooking only the turkey breast, it should reach 170 & deg; in the thickest part of the breast, according to USDA guidelines.
Predicting the exact time your turkey will be ready. "Get over the notion that you can predict when the bird is going to be ready," Berry says.
If it is done too early, you can hold it in the oven at 140 & deg; or you may have to switch from having a hot turkey to a cold one.
Leaving out the leftovers. "People tend to think that once they've cooked the turkey, they can leave it out forever, and they cannot," Berry says. Leftovers shouldn't be left on the table beyond two hours, she says.
When you're done with your meal, take the turkey off the bone, divide into portions so that it will cool, and refrigerate. Turkey will keep up to four days in the refrigerator. Use stuffing and gravy within one to two days.