Consider yourself warned.
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It's Thanksgiving morning. You wake up, take your defrosted turkey out of the refrigerator, and preheat the oven. But before you place your bird in the roasting pan, you do what you've always done—you wash your turkey in the sink.
After all, you need to rinse off any bacteria lingering on the raw meat, right? Wrong.
According to experts, washing your turkey is a bad—and potentially harmful—idea. Here's how to prepare your raw turkey safely, plus our editor's best tips for cooking the most delicious Thanksgiving bird.
First, contrary to popular belief, rinsing your turkey actually doesn't remove all of the bacteria as some of those germs are tightly attached to the turkey skin. "It’s virtually impossible to wash bacteria off the bird," the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained in a post. "Instead, juices that splash during washing can transfer bacteria onto the surfaces of your kitchen, other foods and utensils."
In fact, a recent study by the USDA discovered that 60 percent of kitchen sinks were contaminated after people rinsed their turkeys. That cross-contamination could spread foodborne illnesses (like salmonella) and potentially make you or your guests sick.
Not only that, but washing your turkey can also dry it out. "You're removing some of the fat and oil layers that keep the turkey moist," our kitchen and cooking editor, Cassidy Olsen, explains. "The same way your skin gets crazy dry in the winter after you shower, washing your bird inside and out will not help it retain moisture while it cooks. A crispy skin is good, sure, but a dry bird is bad."
"A turkey is just like any other poultry you'd usually handle, but there's so much of it it can be overwhelming," Cassidy says, adding that proper sanitation is key to preventing the spread of bacteria. Always wash your hands before and after handling raw poultry, which is something that a study found most people fail to do nearly 100 percent of the time. The USDA says to use soap and warm water and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing.
Then, Cassidy suggests using a separate cutting board and poultry shears for your turkey to avoid cross-contamination. And after you prep your turkey, thoroughly sanitize the sink and any other surfaces it (or its juices) may have touched to prevent the spread of bacteria like salmonella. According to the USDA, the most effective way to do so is with a chlorine bleach solution or an alcohol-based solution. Wipe it over your counters or sink and then let it dry completely.
The smaller the bird, the easier it is to handle and to cook without drying it out or undercooking it, Cassidy says. She also highly recommends spatchcocking, a method that involves butterflying your bird and roasting it flat. It decreases the cook time of your turkey and helps the meat cook more evenly. And Cassidy's number one insider secret to the most delicious Thanksgiving turkey? "Lots and lots of herbed butter on and under the skin!"
But no matter how you cook it, always use a meat thermometer to make sure the internal temperature is at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature that the USDA deems that meat is safe to eat. To accurately determine the temperature, the USDA advises to take it in three different places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. If one of those sections is still below 165, keep cooking!
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