Holiday food safety & preparation keeps guests smiling for a Happy Thanksgiving

Traditional meals during the holidays can change slightly as new generations bring their favorites to the table.

“Nothing new under the sun” is a quote from Ecclesiastes and certainly could apply to meal planning for Thanksgiving and Christmas — expect, there is always something new. Traditions don’t have to exclude changes. Trending with new recipes is what Pinterest is all about, and all the cooking shows or websites with an endless number of things to try. However, new cooks may not know what it took grandparents years to find out with a lot of trial and error — sometimes tummy aches if food safety was not considered. Who better to ask than an expert. Mandy Armentor is the area nutrition agent for the LSU AgCenter in Vermilion and Iberia Parishes.  

How do you figure the size of the turkey to buy per family?

Those “seasoned” cooks may not have any questions of how to cook a turkey, but for someone who has never cooked a turkey you will have a million questions. A few tips can make sure you prepare the perfect Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. For those of you cooking a turkey over 12 pounds, it should be in the refrigerator already defrosting. Use the following chart of turkey types to help you calculate how much turkey per person you will need.

Whole Bird — 1 pound

Boneless Turkey Breast -— 1/2 pound

Breast of Turkey (bone in) — 3/4 pound

Turkey Roll — 1/2 pound

Pre-stuffed Frozen Turkey — 1 1/4 pounds (keep frozen until ready to cook)

How long does it take to defrost a turkey?

Always thaw your turkey in the original wrapper in the refrigerator. Place the bird in a pan and allow 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey. After the turkey is completely thawed out, keep it refrigerated for 1 to 2 days. Plan on 1 to 3 days for an 8 to 12 pound turkey; 3 to 4 days for a 12 to 16 pound turkey; 4 to 5 days for a 16 to 20 pound turkey; and 5 to 6 days for a 20 to 24 pound turkey.

What is the most popular way to cook a turkey?

There are many ways to cook a turkey: smoked, fried, baked or grilled; though baked by far is the most popular way for cooking. In the oven the best temperature is 325ºF to bake it. The following charts can help guide you, whether you stuff it or not. Here is a chart to use for preparation.


Unstuffed Turkey

Size/Hours to Prepare

4 to 8 pound turkey breast — 1½ to 3¼ hours

8 to 12 pounds — 2¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds — 3 to 3¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds — 3¾ to 4¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds -— 4¼ to 4½ hours

20 to 24 pounds — 4½ to 5 hours


Stuffed Turkey

Size/Hours to Prepare

6 to 8 pound turkey breast — 2½ to 3½ hours

8 to 12 pounds — 3 to 3½ hours

12 to 14 pounds — 3½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds — 4 to4¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds — 4¼ to 4¾ hours

20 to 24 pounds — 4¾ to 5¼ hours

Explain some other methods for cooking turkey besides in the oven?

GRILLING TURKEY — Turkey can be grilled either on a gas or charcoal grill. It is recommended that you place a pan of water beneath the grilling the surface to catch the drippings as it cooks. The best way to grill is on the indirect heat side which means away from direct flame.

ELECTRIC ROASTER OVEN — This is a countertop or tabletop appliance that serves as an extra oven for cooking. The cooking time and oven temperature are the same as a traditional oven. If you have one, check the owner’s manual for instructions. The general rule of thumb is to set the temperature no lower than 325 degrees F. and place it on the rack, leaving the lid on while cooking.

SMOKER — Smokers come in either electric, charcoal or gas versions. Follow the directions on your smoker for cooking. When smoking a turkey, start with clean equipment and place in an area shielded from wind. You can use any type of wood except for pine, fir, cedar or spruce as they give off a turpentine flavor and coat the food with a black pitch. Cooking times in a smoker will vary on the size of the turkey and type of smoker being used. You want to make sure turkey is fully thawed and use 20 to 30 minutes per pound to determine the length of cooking time. 

FRYING — as long as the turkey is not stuffed and fully defrosted you can deep fry a whole turkey. When the turkey is submerged in oil it should cover 1 to 2 inches over. Select a safe location away from your home, garage or any structure that may catch on fire. The cooking oil should be heated to 350 degrees F. and allow 3 to 5 minutes cook time per pound of turkey. Once the turkey is cooked, allow it to rest for 20 minutes before carving. 

How do you know when turkey is fully cooked?

The best way to ensure that your turkey is fully cooked is to use a meat thermometer and it should reach 165 degrees F. internal temperature for a fully cooked turkey. Temperature should be taken in the innermost part of the wing; innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. Stuffing is safe when cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Once your turkey is cooked, take it out of the oven and let it stand 20 minutes before carving for the juices to settle.

What is a good alternative to traditional turkey?

Turduckens are a popular meat served here in Louisiana around the holidays and year-round. It is a deboned stuffed chicken inside a deboned stuffed duck inside a deboned stuffed turkey. You can either cook a turducken frozen or in its defrosted stated. You want to bake it a temperature no lower than 325 degrees F. and cook until the internal temperature when checked with a food thermometer is 165 degrees F. in several places. You want to make sure all layers of the turducken are fully cooked. 

What are some tips about leftovers?

All foods need to be stored in shallow containers or bags and refrigerated within 2 hours of servings. Leftover turkey and other dishes mean you can have more tasty meals the day after your feast. But there are limits on how long you can safely keep leftovers. If you are still eating your leftovers on the Monday after Thanksgiving it is time to either freeze them or toss them out. When heating and storing leftovers keep the following in mind:

• Refrigerate cooked leftovers promptly – within two hours of serving your meal.

• Use an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator to keep your refrigerator at

40 degrees F. or below.

• Divide leftovers into smaller portions and store in shallow containers in the refrigerator.

• Thanksgiving turkey needs to be carved from the bones and stored in shallow containers and put in the refrigerator or freezer.

• Wash hands with warm water and soap for 15 seconds before and after handling food.

• Reheat cooked leftovers to 165°F; use a food thermometer to measure the temperature.

• Sauces, soups and gravies should be reheated by bringing them to a boil.

• When microwaving leftovers, make sure there are no cold spots in food where bacteria can survive. Cover food, stir and rotate for even cooking.

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