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. Gale says:

    I've stuffed my turkeys (breadcrumbs, celery, onion, chicken broth and butter only) for the past 40 years. The stuffing is cool when I put it inside the turkey. Before that my mom did the same…that amounts to probably 60-plus years of stuffed turkeys with never a problem. Follow guidelines above – and thank you for letting everyone know we "in-the-bird" folks are NOT crazy or living dangerously! By the way, I always make a pan of stuffing as well to bake in the oven because it's such a popular dish!

  2. daisym0m says:

    I have always stuffed my turkeys. The stuffing is already cooked and is HOT when I put it in the turkey. 75+ years (mother and me) no problems. Also, make sure the bird is thoroughly cleaned and rinsed before stuffing.

  3. Lynda says:

    My grandmother, my mother and I have always stuffed the bird, with any leftover uncooked stuffing, cook it in a casserole. When turkey is done, I take some of the juices and pour over oven cooked dressing. The day before Thanksgiving, I place my bread crumbs, seasoned and unseasoned in a large bowl, chop 4-5 celery stalks, an onion and cover overnight. The next morning after preparing the turkey, I add 2eggs and chicken broth until stuffing clumps together. Place in turkey, front and backend, wrap in foil and bake at 350 for number of hours recommended for the size of the turkey, unwrap the last 45min and let brown…yummmmm

  4. kim says:

    My family always stuffs the bird, but my hubby makes "stuffins," dressing baked in a muffin tin.

  5. Kathy says:

    To us stuffing and dressing are the same thing. We always lightly stuff the bird and always cook a separate batch in a very large casserole. Key to a good casserole stuffing is cooking it after the bird has come out of the oven and the juices have been collected. We drench the casserole with the juices and bake away. It's almost as good as the stuffing from the bird.

  6. monie baytos says:

    I have grown up on traditional bread stuffing baked in the turkey. Since the stuffing was a family favorite, in recent years I have done a pan on side also. I used to buy small turkey breast and cook that over the separate stuffing. However, this year will be using drippings from the turkey over it. I have also turned to stuffing bags in recent years. These allow the juice to flow in but protect the stuffing from bacteria. They come with a timer stick and it tells u if you ned to return the stuffing to the oven to cook more. I use uncooked stuffing. I do cut up the bread and let it sit in a covered bowl overnight. I cook my onion celery and butter night before and keep it refrigerated. This makes stuffing moist and gives it the flavor of my mama’s stuffing which is the best. I have not gotten sick yet. This is the way we have done it all my life and I am 48 now. I do have to say I only use frozen turkeys which are thawed only in refrigerator and not removed from fridge until I am ready to rinse it thoroughly, pat it dry then stuff it. It goes immediately to oven from there. Always cook longer than suggested for unstuffed bird of course.

  7. Paul the artist cook says:

    Stuffing a turkey is one of the most wonderful ways to enhance the taste and the quality of the turkey. The flavours that seep out from the ingredients which can include plumbs, chestnuts, and numerous spices, and sausage meats, add a tremendous depth to the taste to the turkey. It also prevents the turkey from drying out like an old boot. The worries about salmonella are of course to be taken seriously and should always be. Higene and care in the kitchen is a fundamental first for all cooks.
    In Europe the cooking of stuffed poultry goes back to Roman times, and even before, so experiment and enjoy. Happy thanksgiving to all,

  8. Ken says:

    I have always cooked my birds stuffed no matter what kind of bird it is. Sometimes the stuffing is simply aromatics to simply impart some flavor in the bird I am cooking other times proper stuffing. I pack mine full and get as much stuffing into the bird as possible, so I stuff the main cavity and the neck using the extra skin to get as much in. What can I say I love stuffing.
    I have an understanding of microbiology from college level biological studies and working laboratories. I have also worked in the restaurant industry and have been taught good hygiene practices. So I am careful about how I handle any type of meat before cooking especially with beef since I like my beef rare. Things I do to prevent food Bourne illness are the following:
    1. I wash my hands frequently not just at the beginning.
    2. I make sure I rinse the bird thoroughly, really flushing it clean.
    3. With turkeys most of the time I brine the turkey, though there are sugars in brine which can feed bacteria they usually contain high salt concentration which can prevent growth of many type of bacteria (note not all bacteria). Also any alcohol I add to my brine I do once it is cooled, alcohol will kill most bacteria, but realistically it is not in high enough concentration. So I always try to make sure my brine is sterile, bringing to a boil and making sure it is kept covered.
    4. I prepare my stuffing right before adding it to the bird. Any meat that is added to the stuffing is cooked.
    5. I make sure that every on the bird I have reached 165F and I check inside the center of the stuffing as well as this might take the longest to reach 165F. I check in several areas to insure, that I have reached 165F throughout the bird.
    6. I always make sure the bird rest. As with all meat once you remove it from a heat source the internal temperature will remain the same or slightly rise for a period of time. At 165F kill most bacteria after 15 minutes.

  9. Peggy says:

    My mom also stuffed her turkeys, every year, and I love the taste of it! But, I also am very aware of the problems that can happen too. So I do just what my mother had done, after stuffing the bird and getting in the oven (I use a bag to cook it in my electric roaster), I cook it at 425 for 45 minutes or so, then turn it down to 350. It's perfect every time!

  10. mandy yates says:

    How do you know turkey is done without a thermometer

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