Debunking Thanksgiving Myths
When I started cooking Thanksgiving dinner, I was faced with many food safety myths. Whether you are a Thanksgiving cooking pro or newbie, here are some of the myths you might encounter, and the facts you need to know.
Myth: Leave Food Outside to Keep it Cold
I grew up in the northeast, where we often had almost a foot of snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures for Thanksgiving. My family’s solution to the overflowing refrigerator that accompanies preparing a meal for 25+ guests was to place the food out in the snow to keep cold. At first glance, this seems food safe because it’s below freezing outside and snow is ice.
Fact: Storing food outside isn’t safe
There are two reasons why storing food outside is a bad idea:
- Animal contamination. Animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it.
- Temperature variation. Just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (between 40°F - 140°F). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40°F) is in a cooler with ice.
Food stored in the danger zone for longer than two hours should be thrown out. Exceptions to this rule include ready-to-eat items like cookies, crackers, bread, and whole fruit.
Myth: You Can’t Cook a Frozen Turkey
One Thanksgiving, we forgot to take our 25-pound behemoth of a turkey out of the freezer in time to fully defrost. When we went to the store to purchase a fresh turkey, they were all out. We didn’t know what to do because we thought that a frozen bird couldn’t be cooked.
Fact: You can cook a frozen turkey
A helpful butcher told us that, yes, a frozen turkey can be cooked. Here at USDA FSIS, we recommend giving yourself at least 50 percent longer to cook that frozen turkey. If you cannot separate that giblet package from the turkey at the start, just remember to remove it carefully with tongs or a fork a few hours into the cooking process.
Myth: The Bird is Done When Juices Run Clear
I remember helping my mom check to see if the turkey was done and having her poke the turkey to check if the juices ran clear. If they didn’t, it was back in the oven for the turkey. This process would keep repeating itself until everyone was hungry and we just decided to eat the turkey. We often were left with dry turkey.
Fact: You need a food thermometer to tell if a turkey is cooked
The only way to determine if a turkey is safely cooked and ready to serve is to take the temperature of the turkey with a food thermometer in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. The thermometer should read 165°F. The juices rarely run clear at this temperature, and when they do the bird is often overcooked. Using the food thermometer is the best way to ensure your turkey is cooked to a safe internal temperature, but not overcooked.
If you have any Thanksgiving myths you want to check out, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), where you can talk to a food safety specialist in English or Spanish between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. ET. They will even be open on Thanksgiving Day from 8:00 AM ET to 2:00 PM ET.