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Why? The do's and don'ts of cooking turkey.

A gloriously golden brown turkey, the cornerstone of Thanksgiving dinner, brings sighs of satisfaction when it's juicy and succulent, and disappointment when it's not. Even though cooking a turkey is a simple process, a dry bird is a common frustration, and stuffing safety is always a concern.

Why does turkey taste dry?

Overcooking is the culprit. As turkey cooks, heat makes the meat tighten, firm, and release flavorful juices. If cooked beyond optimum doneness, the meat continues to tighten and squeeze out juices until it is hard and dry.

Why is overcooking so common?

If you cook turkey the way your grandmother did, from the crack of dawn until dinner, you are headed for big trouble. Today's turkeys are much younger, meatier, and tenderer than those of years ago, and they cook more quickly. A 10-pound bird may be ready to eat in as little as 1 1/2 hours, and a 30-pound bird is usually done in less than 5 hours. Unfortunately, old ways die hard. You may still rely on an old favorite cookbook. Also, directions on some turkey wrappers still give out-of-date cooking times, and meat thermometers are marked for turkey doneness at a temperature higher than desirable. Nonetheless, a thermometer is essential if you want a perfectly cooked bird.

Why use a thermometer?

The best way to judge when your turkey is done is with an accurate meat or instant-read thermometer.

A turkey is not the same temperature throughout when cooked because the meat is different thicknesses on the carcass. We find the most reliable place to put the thermometer is through the thickest part of the breast to the bone. When the breast is perfectly cooked, the thermometer is at 160 |degrees~; if you pull the thermometer up into the breast's thick center part, it will read about 10 |degrees~ hotter--170 |degrees~--but that center is more difficult to locate than the breast bone.

When the breast is done, thigh meat at the hip joint may still be too pink (although safe) for most tastes. As the turkey rests for carving (10 to 30 minutes), the juices settle back into the meat, the heat in the bird equalizes, and sometimes the joint will lose the pink color. If not, when you carve off thighs, return them to a 450 |degrees~ oven until meat fibers at joint pull apart easily, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Meanwhile, carve breast and drumsticks.

Why do I need to thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator?

Safety is the reason. Bacteria multiply rapidly on food left unrefrigerated for several hours. With the turkey's large mass, it takes too long for the bird to thaw completely at room temperature without risk of spoilage. When you rush the process by defrosting a turkey at room temperature or in warm water, the outside of the bird thaws first and quickly reaches the temperature conducive to bacterial growth while the interior remains frozen for hours longer.

At refrigerator temperatures, the bird can thaw more evenly, with minimum bacterial growth. Set the turkey, sealed in its plastic bag, on a pan to collect juices; allow two to four days in the refrigerator, depending on bird size.

If you need to speed the process or you don't have room in the refrigerator, you can immerse the turkey in the sealed bag in cool water for 12 to 48 hours, changing the water often. Another way is to set the wrapped turkey in a pan inside a double set of sealed paper bags. The air between the bags acts as insulation to keep the cold from dissipating, so the exterior of the bird remains cool. Allow 14 to 24 hours.

Can I stuff the turkey the night before?

No. If you want to stuff the turkey, do so just before you cook it. There is real danger if the dressing stands in the bird for a long period. Because both the dressing and bird are moist, and either may contain harmful bacteria (typically, Staphylococcus aureus), the bacteria can grow to dangerous levels if held at 60 |degrees~ to 120 |degrees~ for 2 to 3 hours.

As a turkey cooks, the dressing heats slowly. Harmful bacteria aren't killed until the temperature in the center of the dressing registers 140 |degrees~ for at least 3 minutes (or 160 |degrees~ for instant-kill). If the dressing does not get this hot, scoop it from the turkey into a casserole and bake, covered, until it reaches the safe temperature.

However, for convenience, you can make the dressing ahead and store it, covered, in the refrigerator. Another safe alternative is to cook the dressing and bird separately from the start.

As soon as a stuffed bird is cooked, spoon out the dressing. Store leftovers separately in the refrigerator.

More questions?

If you come across other cooking mysteries and would like to know why they happen, send your questions to Why?, Sunset Magazine, 80 Willow Rd., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025. With the help of Dr. George K. York, extension food technologist at UC Davis, Sunset food editors will find the solutions.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Anusasananan, Linda Lau
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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