I bought two turkeys last November, with the intent to cook one at Thanksgiving and the second one for New Year’s Day. We ended up going to a friend’s house on New Year’s instead, so now I still have the frozen turkey from last year in my freezer. Is it safe to cook it for our Thanksgiving meal this year?
Yes, you can still safely cook that turkey as long as it has been stored in the freezer unopened and uninterrupted and stored at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.
That’s because freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing microbes to enter a dormant stage, USDA says. Freezing preserves food for extended periods because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness.
However, in order to safeguard against the potential growth of harmful bacteria that may have been present on the bird before it was frozen, it’s important to use safe methods to thaw the turkey before cooking, said Sanja Ilic, the state food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University (CFAES).
There are three safe ways to thaw a frozen turkey: in the refrigerator, in a container of cold water or in a microwave.
The best method is to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator even though it is also the longest method, Ilic says. This allows the turkey to thaw in a controlled environment out of the temperature “danger zone” — between 40 and 140 degrees — where bacteria can multiply rapidly.
Turkeys thawed in the refrigerator take one day for each 4-5 pounds of weight. So, for example, if your turkey weighs 15 pounds, it can take three days to thaw. And, once thawed, you should cook the turkey within two days to ensure safety.
If you need to thaw the turkey faster, you can place it in a container or sink and submerge it in cold water. But it’s important that the turkey stay cold, so you need to ensure that the turkey is completely submerged in cold water by replacing the water with fresh cold water every 30 minutes. Turkeys thawed using this method will need 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound.
You can also thaw your turkey in the microwave by taking it out of its packaging and placing it on a microwave-safe dish. Use the defrost function based on the turkey’s weight, USDA says. Generally, allow six minutes per pound to thaw. Once the turkey has thawed, you should cook it immediately.
When cooking your turkey, it’s best not to stuff it with dressing (or stuffing depending on what you call it), because uncooked poultry can harbor bacterial pathogens, which can be present both on the inside and outside of a raw turkey.
To ensure that you’ve destroyed the bacteria, which can cause foodborne illnesses, cook your turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F before you serve it. Otherwise, it will not be safe to eat, USDA says.
And, be sure to use a digital tip-sensitive food thermometer to determine its actual temperature. While other methods have been used in many a kitchen, such as how golden brown the turkey looks or if the juices run clear, they don’t provide an accurate measurement of how safely done the bird is.
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Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in Food Safety for Ohio State University Extension.