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'Tis the Season for Talking Turkey : Holidays: Meat and poultry hot line offers answers for cooking the bird.


WASHINGTON — Americans will gobble millions of pounds of turkey in the next few weeks and government food experts are bracing for the annual flock of calls about the safety methods for cooking and storing holiday meals.

The Department of Agriculture operates a Meat and Poultry Hot Line to answer these queries, and for the holiday season weekend hours are being added to the toll-free service.

The hot line is now in operation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time, seven days a week, and will also be operating from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The number is 1-800-535-4555.

Cooking turkeys days ahead and freezing them for the holiday, cooking them and taking the bird to relatives, stuffing the fowl and other potential problems are among the most common topics discussed.

The department's Food Safety and Inspection Service has compiled a list of the six top turkey questions it gets each year, and the answers.

Question: How long will turkey last in the freezer?

Answer: A whole frozen turkey can be stored in a home freezer at 0 degrees for up to one year without appreciable loss of quality. To prevent freezer burn, wrap the turkey in heavy freezer paper.

Q: Which tastes better, fresh or frozen turkey?

A: There is no significant difference in quality between a fresh turkey and a frozen one. But you can only keep a fresh turkey refrigerated one to two days before cooking.

Q: How should I thaw a turkey?

A: Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the preferred method. Allow one day for each five pounds.

If in a hurry, thaw the turkey in a clean sink. Cover the bird with cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to keep it cool. Allow six to nine hours for a 12- to 16-pound turkey, nine to 11 hours for a 16- to 20-pound bird.

Turkey can also be thawed in the microwave oven, if it will fit.

Be ready to cook the bird as soon as it is thawed.

Q: What's the safest way to stuff a turkey?

A: Stuff the turkey just before you put it in the oven. To save time, chop up and refrigerate the stuffing ingredients the night before. Combine everything in the morning, just before roasting. Stuff the bird loosely.

Q: What's the best way to cook a picture-perfect turkey?

A: There are several good cooking methods which will provide a delicious, tender turkey.

You can roast the bird, uncovered, in a 325-degree oven. This will give drier meat but great roasted flavor. Or you can put the bird in an oven cooking bag, which will give moister meat in a shorter time. Microwaves, rotisseries and even an outdoor kettle grill can also be used.

Q: Can I cook the turkey the day before Thanksgiving?

A: Cooking ahead requires special attention to safe handling. First, cook the bird to an internal temperature of 180 degrees in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. Bake the stuffing separately.

When it is fully roasted, let the bird stand for minutes. Then carve the meat off, leaving the legs, thighs and wings intact if you like.

Refrigerate the turkey meat in small, shallow containers.

On Thanksgiving Day, reheat the meat in a 325-degree oven or in the microwave. To keep the meat tender when using a conventional oven, cover it with gravy or reserved natural juices.

Serve the heated slices on a platter with the drumsticks and wings garnishing the edges.

Occasionally people will suggest cooking a turkey all night in a low oven. Don't do this, the department warns. Dangerous bacteria can multiply in a turkey cooked at a temperature lower than 325 degrees, the department says.

A particularly dangerous practice is partially cooking the turkey ahead of time and finishing it later, since it may not get hot enough to kill the bacteria either time, food safety experts warn.

People who want to take a turkey with them on a Thanksgiving visit to friends or relatives should cook it ahead and freeze the meat, transport it in an insulated cooler and rewarm it there.

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