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The big (bird) freeze

By Keegan Prosser on November 12, 2012 – No Comment

It’s Thanksgiving morning, friends and family are on their way to your house for dinner – and the turkey is still frozen.

But according to O. Peter Snyder, Jr., Ph.D., president of the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management in St. Paul, Minn. this could be a good thing.

Yep, you can cook the entire turkey – from the frozen state. The FDA Food Code allows this, Snyder says.

Want to learn how to take your bird from the freezer to the dinner table? Follow these steps for a 12-to-13-lb. frozen turkey.

Start 5 to 5 1/2 hours before you want to serve the cooked turkey. Set the oven temperature at 325ºF. It is much better that the turkey be done 30 minutes before mealtime than to rush and serve an undercooked turkey. Remove the wrapping from the turkey and put the turkey on a rack on a pan that has been covered with foil to make cleaning easy. You can also cook the turkey in a covered roasting pan if you have one.

Put the turkey in the oven. Do not worry about the bag with the heart, liver, etc. in the neck cavity or the neck in the center of the turkey. They can be removed during cooking, after the turkey thaws. There will be Salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni bacteria on the turkey. However, because it is frozen, there is no drip, and transfer to hands or counter is not a significant risk.

Cooking the turkey on a shallow pan on a rack assures even cooking. Cooking in a pan with sides shields the bottom of the turkey from heat, and the cooking on the bottom will be non-uniform.

In the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours, the legs and thighs get up to approximately 100ºF. The breast, about 1 inch into the flesh, is still at the soft ice point, about 25ºF. At this point, begin to monitor breast temperature with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer as it thaws. You may also use a dial roast thermometer. Insert it into the breast, because it is the slowest cooking part.

After about 3 1/2 hours, the legs and thighs will be around 150 to 160ºF, and the breast, about 40 to 50ºF. The bag of heart, liver, etc. and the neck can be removed at this time, to be made into stock, if desired.

At 4 1/2 to 5 hours, the turkey is nicely cooked. Check the temperature. The leg and thigh should be tender and at a temperature of 175 to 185ºF, while the breast will be moist at a temperature of 160 to 170ºF. The pop-up timer (if there is one) should have popped. Cooking turkeys to these temperatures is adequate to assure the reduction of Salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni to a safe level.

Not only is this an excellent way to cook turkey, but it also has benefits over cooking a thawed turkey. If you thaw a turkey in a home refrigerator, there is a significant risk of raw juice with pathogens at high levels getting on refrigerator surfaces, other foods in the refrigerator, countertops, and sink, thus creating a hazard and a need for extensive cleaning and sanitizing.

The second benefit is that, because the breast has greater mass, it takes longer to thaw. Therefore, the thigh and leg are well cooked and tender, while the breast is not overcooked and dried out. The breast will cook to a juicy 160-to-165ºF endpoint without difficulty.

To assure a quality and safe turkey, monitor the final temperature with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer, and always wash your hands before touching and handling the cooked turkey.

But what about the stuffing? When the giblet bag is removed, the turkey can be stuffed. You may need to wear silicone gloves to protect your hands because they turkey will be hot. As always, don’t overstuff the turkey and be sure to remove all of the stuffing when the bird is done. Take the temperature inside the middle of the stuffing: it should be 165ºF. And think about heating up the stuffing before putting it in the turkey according to the directions in the Stuffing Science article for more safety.

Got a bigger bird? Old data from the USDA would say add 2 hours more at most, so 5 hours becomes 7 hours. And if you have to hold the cooked bird, make sure it stays above 130F.