Turkey Talk: To Stuff or Not To Stuff?

by in Food Safety, Thanksgiving, November 18, 2009

stuffed turkey
Years ago it was unheard of NOT to stuff your turkey. These days, things have changed because of growing awareness for food-borne illnesses and their risks. The good news is that there’s a way to safely stuff your turkey.

The Issue
A decent-sized Thanksgiving turkey takes a few hours to cook in the oven. It’s not only how long you cook it, but at what temperature you set the oven. It’s important that your bird reach the proper cooking temperature so you kill potentially harmful bacteria (e.g. salmonella) that lurk in the meat and its juices.

In the past, stuffing a large turkey has been linked to salmonella outbreaks. People weren’t cooking their turkeys at the right temperature for the proper amount of time. Plus, jam-packing the turkey’s cavity with stuffing affected the cooking (it tougher to kill bacteria when a bird is overstuffed) and made for a disastrous combination. Worse still, when you remove stuffing from a bird that hasn’t been cooked properly, chances are the stuffing is not safe to eat either because it might be contaminated. Yikes!

The Solution
The USDA recommends buying frozen pre-stuffed turkeys since these birds undergo inspection to make sure they are handled properly. However, you shouldn’t thaw these turkeys; you’re supposed to cook them from a frozen state. The USDA strongly advises against buying fresh pre-stuffed turkeys since they’re handled by multiple people and have a higher chance of being contaminated.

If you decide to make your own stuffing, you can either cook and serve it on the side or follow these USDA guidelines to safely stuff a turkey:

Step 1: Prepare Stuffing Safely
If you’re using raw meat, poultry or shellfish to make your stuffing, cook those first, add them to your stuffing mix and then immediately stuff your bird. If you’re preparing the stuffing ahead of time, cool it immediately and placed it in shallow containers in the refrigerator. Pre-cooked and cooled stuffing should not be used for the turkey — eat this separately.

Step 2: Stuff Loosely
Cook stuffing and immediately place it in your turkey’s cavity. Stuff loosely — about 3/4 cup per pound of turkey. Don’t stuff turkeys that will be grilled, smoked, fried or microwaved.

Step 3: Cook Immediately
Don’t let your turkey sit out at room temperature — that gives pesky bacteria a good opportunity to grow. Once you’ve stuffed your bird, immediately cook it in an oven that’s set no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. For a list of cooking temperatures per pound of meat, check out this good USDA list.

Step 4: Check the Temperature
You want to make sure the internal temperature of the turkey reaches at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. To check that, place a thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast.  If you check and the turkey hasn’t reached the proper internal temperature, continue cooking it. Don’t remove the stuffing at this point because you think it might speed up cooking. It’s already been contaminated with the turkey’s bacteria and needs to keep cooking to kill it off.

Step 5: Let It Stand
Once cooked, take the turkey out of the oven and wait 20 minutes — you can now take the stuffing out and carve this bad boy.

Step 6: Holding Time
Eat cooked turkey within two hours and promptly refrigerate any leftovers. Slice leftover turkey and store in shallow containers (don’t just shove the whole bird, loosely wrapped, back in the fridge). Be sure to use up those leftovers within three to four days.

TELL US: How do you handle your stuffing?

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Comments (31)

  1. M.J. Jacobsen says:

    It just grosses my out to think of all that stuffing in the bird…..so I make mine in a casserole dish,and bake until it's crispy. I've never seen a frozen stuffed turkey in these parts, where do you find them? My mom would love that!

    • karen says:

      what kind of stuffing do you make i have always put my stuffing in my turkey but last yr my stuffing was not cooked all the way.so this yr i was thinking of putting it in a casserole dish!!

      • TONY PENN says:

        If you stuff it and it is not fully cooked when the turkey is, put it in a casserol dish back in the oven untill it reaches at least 165 degrees same as recomended turkey tempeture.
        thats the way we have been doing it for years.

    • DSH says:

      What grosses me out is an nstuffed turkey and poor, miserable stuffing dried to death in a casserole dish. I will NEVER REVER do anything but cook stuffing inside every turkey I make!

  2. Amarie says:

    Just tried "dressing" instead of stuffing. We did a pre-thanksgiving meal to share with everyone at work. The dressing was great and I am not going to stuff my turkey tomorrow. Might break tradition but what I tasted was really good.

  3. Sue says:

    I've been stuffing my Thanksgiving turkey for over twenty years and my mother stuffed her holiday turkeys for years and years before that. Done properly, there's no danger and it tastes so much better than dressing. And buying a pre-stuffed frozen turkey? Give me a break. You'll pay three times what it's worth and it'll taste like Stove Top stuffing.

    • karen says:

      it might but i want to know whats in my turkey i like to make my stuffing my self

    • Lynn says:

      I'm with you, Sue. I have made over 100 stuffed turkeys in my day and have NEVER had a problem. Intelligence, butter and sage dressing supersede fear and convenience. Yuck that frozen stuffed bird!

  4. DeWitt Gravink says:

    We cook the stuffing before we stuff it into the bird. We clean the turkey thoroughly and "freshen it" with the juice of three oranges, inside and out. We make enough to have a large casserole of stuffing (dressing), as well. Never had a problem, and we generally cook a 25 lb turkey. This is our 15th year.

  5. Oz Tello says:

    My wife makes the turkey with the stuffing in it as she cooks it is this wrong. The comment above sounds like everyone will get sick if you cook it that way????

  6. maryann says:

    been eating stuffed turkey my whole life…and thats how i make it in the BIRD !!! your not cooking beef it a bird you have to fully cook birds and pigs..mine or never dried out either…

  7. Pat says:

    I have stuffed turkeys for decades and haven't killed anybody yet. Do follow the instructions about keeping things fresh and cooking to the proper temperatures. The instructions above for stuffing a turkey are excellent and should dispel any misgivings you may have. Thanks to the authors!

  8. Suzanne says:

    I usually bake our large holiday turkey with some stuffing in it (mostly for fllavor). But the real hit in our family are the "stuffing balls" which I make and bake separately. I just prepare the stuffing mix and make meatball size balls (about 2 dozen). They freeze well too so can be made in advance.

  9. Jaydell says:

    Growing up in the south I've never had it stuffed in the bird. That seems gross to me. Dressing is my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal and you can make a lot more in a casserole. Topped with a good gravy, yum?

  10. CeCe says:

    I grew up in the South and am still living here. My family has always stuffed the turkey and we all love it. I think its just the way your family's traditions are. As long as you are sure the turkey is fully cooked, like the article states, you'll be fine.

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