We now declare this National Turkey Thawing Day, when frozen turkeys up to 20 pounds should be moved out of the freezer and into the refrigerator. That means most of them.
Have you moved yours yet?
If that bird is bigger than 20 pounds, you're running out of time to get it easily thawed by Thanksgiving. You're also running out of the safest options.
No other holiday meal hands us the same challenge, cooking one of the most beloved – and largest – pieces of protein we see all year. On this day, different rules may apply.
Here are seven tips to keep your holiday food safe:
1. Wash your hands. You know the drill: Warm water, lots of soap, scrubbing while you say the entire alphabet. Make your helpers do it, too. And do it all over again after touching raw meat. Or your dog and cat.
2. Thaw smartly. Here's what the U.S. Department of Agriculturerecommends for refrigerator thawing times: 5-6 days for turkeys 20-24 pounds; 4-5 days for 16-20 pounds; 3-4 days for 12-16 pounds; 1-3 days for 4-12 pounds. There are cold-water thawing methods (see previous USDA link), but some can take a half-day. Microwaving is dicey. Some say only the smallest birds (up to 12 pounds) can be thawed safely in the microwave. Check your machine's manual, but it's usually 60-90 minutes on defrost. Turkeys headed for the deep-fryer need to be defrosted properly because ice crystal can go ka-boom in hot oil.
3. Or don't thaw. Butterball says to unwrap a bird no bigger than 14 pounds, run cold water in cavities to remove inserts. Place on pan and in 325 degree oven. Tent with foil if breast gets too brown. Cooking times are not short, up to 6 hours for a 14-pounder. Get important details on the Butterball site and from a video at allrecipes.com.
4. Store properly. A defrosted turkey or a fresh turkey should spend no more than two days in the refrigerator before cooking. Place it in a pan, to prevent juices from contaminating other foods.
5. Don't rinse the bird. Sadly, nearly half of all meats, especially poultry from factory farms, can be contaminated with bacteria that causes food-borne illnesses. It's estimated that rinsing can spread bacteria as far as three feet awayfrom the bird. Dry it, though, for a crispier skin. Disposable paper towels make good blotters. Clean counters, tools and hands thoroughly.
5. Cook properly. Consult a cooking-time chart, but be prepared for variations depending on the kind of pan you use, whether it's stuffed and whether you cover the bird. Here are times for unstuffed birds: 8-12 pounds (2 ¾-3 hours); 12-14 pounds (3-3 ¾ hours); 14-18 pounds (3 ¾-4 ¼ hours); 18-20 pounds (4 ¼-4 ½ hours); 20-24 pounds (4 ½-5 hours). A Consumer Reports study from last yearshowed those pop-up timers – and even those you buy on your own – are unreliable in both temperature directions. Go with an instant-read meat thermometer while you're roasting the deepest parts of the thigh and breast to a safe 165 degrees.
6. Store leftovers swiftly. Don't let good food go to waste by leaving it out too long. Two hours out of the oven is considered the limit for meats before refrigeration or freezing is needed. After 20 minutes of resting, that leaves only 1 hour and 40 minutes on the buffet. Three to four days in the fridge is also a cutoff time before you need to freeze leftovers. Sure, it all sounds bossy, but it's better than being bossed into the bathroom. Or the hospital. Stay thankful.