Turkey Talk: To Stuff or Not To Stuff?

Years ago it was unheard of NOT to stuff your turkey. These days, things have changed because we're hearing more about food-borne illnesses and their risks. The good news is that there’s a way to safely stuff your turkey.

Turkey with Stuffing

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

Years ago it was unheard of NOT to stuff your turkey. These days, things have changed because of growing awareness for food-borne illnesses and their risks. The good news is that there’s a way to safely stuff your turkey.

The Issue

A decent-sized Thanksgiving turkey takes a few hours to cook in the oven. It’s not only how long you cook it, but at what temperature you set the oven. It’s important that your bird reach the proper cooking temperature so you kill potentially harmful bacteria (e.g. salmonella) that lurk in the meat and its juices.

In the past, stuffing a large turkey has been linked to salmonella outbreaks. People weren’t cooking their turkeys at the right temperature for the proper amount of time. Plus, jam-packing the turkey's cavity with stuffing affected the cooking (it tougher to kill bacteria when a bird is overstuffed) and made for a disastrous combination. Worse still, when you remove stuffing from a bird that hasn’t been cooked properly, chances are the stuffing is not safe to eat either because it might be contaminated. Yikes!

The Solution

The USDA recommends buying frozen pre-stuffed turkeys since these birds undergo inspection to make sure they are handled properly. However, you shouldn't thaw these turkeys; you're supposed to cook them from a frozen state. The USDA strongly advises against buying fresh pre-stuffed turkeys since they’re handled by multiple people and have a higher chance of being contaminated.

If you decide to make your own stuffing, you can either cook and serve it on the side or follow these USDA guidelines to safely stuff a turkey:

Step 1: Prepare Stuffing Safely

If you’re using raw meat, poultry or shellfish to make your stuffing, cook those first, add them to your stuffing mix and then immediately stuff your bird. If you’re preparing the stuffing ahead of time, cool it immediately and placed it in shallow containers in the refrigerator. Pre-cooked and cooled stuffing should not be used for the turkey -- eat this separately.

Step 2: Stuff Loosely

Cook stuffing and immediately place it in your turkey's cavity. Stuff loosely -- about 3/4 cup per pound of turkey. Don’t stuff turkeys that will be grilled, smoked, fried or microwaved.

Step 3: Cook Immediately

Don’t let your turkey sit out at room temperature -- that gives pesky bacteria a good opportunity to grow. Once you’ve stuffed your bird, immediately cook it in an oven that’s set no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. For a list of cooking temperatures per pound of meat, check out this good USDA list.

Step 4: Check the Temperature

You want to make sure the internal temperature of the turkey reaches at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. To check that, place a thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast.  If you check and the turkey hasn’t reached the proper internal temperature, continue cooking it. Don’t remove the stuffing at this point because you think it might speed up cooking. It's already been contaminated with the turkey's bacteria and needs to keep cooking to kill it off.

Step 5: Let It Stand

Once cooked, take the turkey out of the oven and wait 20 minutes -- you can now take the stuffing out and carve this bad boy.

Step 6: Holding Time

Eat cooked turkey within two hours and promptly refrigerate any leftovers. Slice leftover turkey and store in shallow containers (don't just shove the whole bird, loosely wrapped, back in the fridge). Be sure to use up those leftovers within three to four days.

TELL US: How do you handle your stuffing?
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