(AP) — With health officials urging Americans to stay home or limit Thanksgiving gatherings, food experts say rookie cooks nervous about attempting their first Turkey Day meal can avoid disaster and keep everyone healthy by following a few basic tips.
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 having just one person serve the food.
As for the meal itself, experts say to get started well before the big day. That includes leaving 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. Sticking a frozen turkey in the oven could result in a bird that looks nicely browned but is still icy 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. Thorough cooking will any germs.
Making sure the bird is properly cooked – it should be 165 degrees at the thickest part – also means using a meat thermometer. 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.
Shaw also recommends cooking the stuffing outside the turkey so it doesn’t pick up bacteria from the bird. Getting stuffing packed inside the bir hot enough to kill any germs could mean burning or drying out the turkey, she said.
Temperature control can be a problem even after everyone is done eating; Experts say to refrigerate leftovers within two hours, because bacteria can grow quickly on food that’s left out.
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, Ore., 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, Conn., will also be making turkey with her husband for the first time, instead of going to her father’s or another 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, for the smaller gatherings this year.
In suburban Detroit, Robyn Dwoskin plans to get a turkey breast instead of a whole bird for her first attempt at a Thanksgiving meal, with just her husband, their daughters and her mother. She has 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.
In Charlotte, N.C., Christopher Hughey tweeted that he’s tackling his first Thanksgiving turkey this year, and 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,” Hughey said. “The other extreme is that we’ll all wind up in urgent care.”
He’s 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.”