Q: Why do you recommend thawing a frozen turkey under cold running water? Wouldn’t it be faster to use warm or hot water? And why does it have to be running? That wastes a lot of water.
Answer: Warm water would be faster, but it also would be unsafe. The skin of a turkey is likely to have the most bacteria. It’s also the place that would be the warmest if the bird were in hot or warm water. So those bacteria would find themselves sitting in a warm puddle of turkey juice, just the right place to start growing. Although living bacteria would be killed when the turkey is roasted, there would be plenty there to get splashed around the kitchen while the turkey is being prepared and put into the oven. Plus, some bacteria make toxins when they grow. Roasting would not destroy the toxins.
Running water is recommended so that any bacteria on the surface of the package or in the water don’t have a chance to sit there and multiply on turkey juices that might escape the package. By running the water, you keep washing them all away. The water doesn’t have to be running full blast. Just a slow steady stream is enough to keep the water circulating. If you put the turkey in an ice chest, open the drain plug and let the water run in the top and out the drain, it can be collected and used to water your flowers or yard, so it’s not a complete loss. But how much more would it cost for an emergency room visit for food poisoning?
Q: If the fresh turkey I bought on Nov. 23 had a sell-by date of Dec. 1, why did I have to roast it within two days of buying it? Wasn’t it still safe until Dec. 1?
Answer: The USDA recommendations are based on the idea that commercial refrigeration is usually better controlled than home refrigerators. A sell-by date is the date the store wants it to be sold and in your kitchen. It will still be safe for a day or two after that, if it has been kept at a safe temperature the whole time up to that date. But our home refrigerators don’t have strong air circulation or warning buzzers if the temperature is too high. We don’t check the temperature daily, or several times a day, the way commercial operations are supposed to do.
Our home units are more likely to be over-stuffed, with poor air circulation — especially around the holidays. They’re opened and closed often. The turkey was probably out of the safe temperature at least for a while between the time we took it out of the case at the store and when we got it into the fridge at home.
When we buy a fresh turkey, we are assuming it was handled safely at all times until we picked it up. But it will still have some bacteria on it. The longer it is kept, the more likely it is that those bacteria will be growing. If it wasn’t handled correctly at any point between the farm where it was grown and the store where we bought it, it could have a lot of bacteria already. Then any time it was warmer than 40 degrees after we bought it, they could be growing again and possibly producing toxins.
So while the sell-by date may be much later, the safe thing is to cook it within two days of getting it home.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.