After Christopher Hughey tweeted that he’s tackling his first Thanksgiving turkey this year, the advice started rolling in.
Brine it. Don't bother. Try “spatchcocking” -- grilling the bird split open. Remember to turn on the oven, and expect that something will burn.
“One extreme is that it’s going to be dry, and inedible and gross,” said the Charlotte, North Carolina, resident, who already doesn't like cooking poultry because of fears he’ll undercook it and sicken people. “The other extreme is that we’ll all wind up in urgent care.”
With health officials urging Americans to stay home or limit Thanksgiving gatherings, food experts say rookie cooks nervous about attempting their first Turkey Day spreads can avoid disaster and keep everyone healthy by following a few basic tips.
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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also offering advice on how to prevent coronavirus infections while celebrating, including eating outside if possible, limiting traffic in the kitchen and just have one person serve the food.
As for the meal itself, experts say to get started well before the big day. A common mistake: Failing to plan so all the dishes can be ready in time.
Cooking the Bird: Roasted or Deep Fried
Leave enough time for frozen turkeys to defrost in the fridge, where temperatures are cold enough to prevent bacteria from multiplying.
Since it takes a day of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds, that could add up to several days depending on the turkey's size. Otherwise, sticking a frozen turkey in the oven could result in a bird that looks nicely browned, but is still cold inside.
“You’ll basically have a turkey popsicle that maybe looks good, but it’s not going to be cooked,” said Frank Proto at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.
Once the bird is thawed, experts say to resist any instincts to rinse it before cooking, which could end up splattering germs around. Thoroughly cooking should kill any germs on the turkey.
Making sure the bird is properly cooked -- it should be 165 degrees at the thickest part -- also means using a meat thermometer. Contrary to the advice many offered to Hughey, experts aren't fans of the pop-up thermometers that come stuck in some birds.
“Those are not always effective in determining the temperature,” said Angela Shaw, a specialist at the Iowa State University's food safety extension.
If you plan on frying your turkey, fire officials urge cooks to only use turkey fryers outdoors to keep your festivities from going up in flames.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, U.S. fire departments responded to 1,630 cooking-related residential fires on Thanksgiving Day in 2018 — more than three times an average day.
Turkey fryers can easily tip over spilling hot oil across a large area so make sure it's on a sturdy, level surface well away from things that can burn. Parents should maintain a “3-foot kid- and pet-free zone” around the fryer to protect against burn injuries.
Before frying a turkey, place it in the fryer and cover it with water to determine the exact amount of oil you will need to prevent a fire caused by overflow.
To Stuff or Not to Stuff
Though there’s debate about it, Shaw recommends cooking the stuffing outside the turkey. Otherwise, she said it could pick up bacteria from the bird. Getting the stuffing hot enough to kill any germs could mean burning or drying out the turkey, she said.
The CDC advises that if you plan on cooking stuffing in the turkey, put it in the turkey just before cooking. With either cooking method, use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165 degrees. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 degrees and may then cause food poisoning. If you cook stuffing in the turkey, wait 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing the stuffing; this allows it to cook a little more.
Handle Leftovers Properly
Temperature control can be a problem even after everyone is done eating; experts say to refrigerate leftovers at 40°F or colder within two hours, since bacteria can grow quickly on food that's left out.
Clostridium perfringens, the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, grows in cooked foods left at room temperature.
A dry, overcooked bird is the main worry for Celeste Molina, who’s staying home with her partner and their roommates instead of spending it with family because of the pandemic. Molina, who works at a screen printing firm in Portland, Oregon, knows how badly first attempts can go; years ago, her aunt ended up burning the Thanksgiving bird.
“We got to her house and she’s like, ‘I’m just going to order you guys McDonald’s,'" she said.
Molina isn’t worried about her first turkey, but just in case, she and her partner plan to buy a chicken to roast alongside it.
Lori DeSanti, a real estate agent in Meriden, Connecticut, will also be making turkey with her husband for the first time, instead of going to her dad’s or relative’s home.
DeSanti isn’t that concerned about the turkey – she’s never been a huge fan – and is focusing on pulling off a stuffing recipe.
“That’s what I’m more worried about ruining,” she said.
Advance planning could be important for another reason this year: Making sure you can get the right size bird, since gatherings are expected to be smaller.
In suburban Detroit, Robyn Dwoskin plans to get a turkey breast instead of a whole bird for her first attempt at a Thanksgiving spread, since it will just be her husband, their daughters and her mom. She's cooked turkey breasts in her slow cooker before, but hasn't yet figured out what she'll do for Thanksgiving.
“I’m still in denial that I’m actually making Thanksgiving this year,” said Dwoskin, who owns a social media engagement company.
Back in North Carolina, Hughey is rethinking his game plan for the dinner he's cooking for his ex-wife and sons.
“Honestly, I hate to say this. I’m thinking about cheating,” said Hughey, who owns a health care technology company. “I’m thinking my next stop is this place that does a fully cooked turkey.”