Why the USDA wants to mail you an instant-read thermometer

Is your Thanksgiving turkey still frozen?

There are three ways to safely defrost a turkey to prevent dangerous bacteria from growing, according to the Department of Agriculture — in the refrigerator, using tap water or putting it in the microwave.

In the refrigerator, it takes approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator safely for one or two days before cooking.

“When we talk about the cold-water method, you must fully submerge your bird in cold water, tap water and change it every 30 minutes,” said Lynn Williams, a food safety specialist at the USDA meat and poultry hotline.

When changing tap water every 30 minutes, it will take about 30 minutes per pound for a turkey to thaw for cooking.

The USDA recommends cooking a bird immediately after it’s defrosted using the cold-water method or by microwave; the defrost function on microwaves is based on weight.

It’s a myth that meat is done when juices run clear.

Turkey should be cooked to 165 degrees. Using an instant-read thermometer, make sure the probe doesn’t touch bone and that you check three places.

“That means the thickest part of the breast, the most inner part of the thigh and the inner-most part of the wing,” Williams said.

The danger zone and the two-hour rule

Food temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees can allow dangerously rapid growth of bacteria after two hours.

Hot foods must stay hot, at 140 degrees or above; and cold foods must stay cold at or below 40 degrees, Williams said.

Hot dishes can be stored in the oven set at 200 to 250 degrees before serving.

Expecting leftovers?

Safely storing leftovers in the freezer or refrigerator requires that packages be small.

“When you put larger portions of food in the refrigerator or the freezer, your food sits inside that danger zone for too long,” Williams said. “So by cutting up and making smaller portions, this is how the food is able to cool safely and evenly to get us outside that 40 degrees to the 140 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Quick USDA tips for a safe holiday meal are: Clean, separate, cook and chill.

Clean surfaces. Avoid cross contamination by keeping meats and fish separate from vegetables, and cook and store food appropriately.

“We want to make sure that everybody is doing the four easy steps, not just for Thanksgiving but across the board in your kitchens,” Williams said.

You can see video examples of how best to clean, separate, cook and chill at the Washington state health department website.

Need expert help?

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is open year-round Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Special hours on Thanksgiving Day are between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The toll free number is 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854).

“The Hotline is one of the rare services where a live person answers callers’ individually specific questions one-on-one,” according to the USDA website.

Want a free instant read thermometer?

Williams said you can ask for one to be mailed to you by calling the hot line.

They have reached capacity, though, so anyone interested is advised to contact the USDA in the new year.

“We want to make sure that every home has a food safety thermometer … so you can have one for the next holiday meal,” she said.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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