Stuff the Safe Way

Turkey stuffing
Can you have Thanksgiving without the stuffing? The Washington Post / Contributor

Stuffing is an integral part of any Thanksgiving spread, but this holiday tradition has the potential to be a holiday hazard. In the past few years, a debate has started about whether or not it’s safe to cook stuffing inside the bird.

The safety issue arises because when ingredients are put into a raw turkey, they come in contact with juices that could be contaminated with salmonella. Consequently, they have to be cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees to kill any possible bacteria. Sure, that seems easy enough. You’re probably thinking that because you took the temperature of the meat, and that was at a nice and safe 165, the stuffing should be good to go. Right?

Wrong. As a general rule—this applies to everything, not just turkeys—the outside cooks faster than the inside. So, while your bird might be sitting pretty at 165 degrees, the stuffing on the inside might only be at 145. If you cook the turkey until the stuffing reaches 165, the meat on the outside might have reached 180 and will be dry. Therein lies the problem. It’s a battle between undercooked and possibly dangerous stuffing and the classic Thanksgiving mistake of dry turkey.

Stuffing a turkey isn’t inherently evil, though a certain celebrity chef might want you to believe otherwise. Here are some tips to help you avoid both salmonella and a dry turkey.

1. Forego the tradition and cook the stuffing outside of the bird. Both Alton Brown and food scientist Harold McGee advocate for this method.

2. Use ice packs while thawing the turkey. McGee has an innovative way to cook the dark meat of a turkey (which he says is best at 180 degrees) while not overcooking the white meat. While thawing the turkey, he puts ice packs over the breasts of the turkey. When the rest of the bird has reached 60 degrees, the breast will only be at 40. While he doesn’t approve of stuffing a turkey at all, this method could allow the stuffing to reach a safe temperature before the meat gets overdone.

3. Cook the stuffing separately and stuff it inside the turkey while it’s resting. This is Alton Brown’s preferred method. You can ensure that your stuffing has reached the proper temperature and then let it soak up some turkey flavor while the bird rests.

If you must stay traditional and cook the stuffing inside of the bird, the USDA has a few recommendations:

1. Stuff loosely. The denser the stuffing in the bird, the more time it will take to get it to a safe temperature. Allow for expansion, and stuff the bird loosely. The USDA recommends ¾ cup for every pound of turkey.

2. Cook any raw meat, poultry or shellfish product before stuffing it into the turkey.

3. Stuff with a moist stuffing. Heat destroys bacteria faster in a wet environment than in a dry one.

Although I haven’t attempted my own turkey dinner yet, I think I’ll opt for the safest method of just cooking the stuffing outside of the bird. No fuss. No worries. Plus, the top of the stuffing gets nice and crunchy.

How do you usually cook your Thanksgiving turkey?

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