Turkey tips for Christmas from The Hygiene Doctor

Dr Lisa Ackerley
Written by Dr Lisa Ackerley
Hygiene and Food Safety Expert

At this time of year I'm often asked questions about he best way to prepare turkey. So here are some simple answers and top tips to keep you safe this Christmas.

What's the best way to store raw turkey?

In the fridge – lowest shelf, protected from any foods that are ready to eat.

Should I wash my raw turkey?

No – never! If you do, you risk spreading germs all over your kitchen sink, draining board and anything else in the vicinity. Try not to handle it too much either. Any surface the raw bird has touched should be disinfected. If the surface doesn't have inbuilt antibacterial protection use a spray such as Dettol. Also don't forget to wash your hands thoroughly using soap and dry them with a paper towel. 

I always wash my hands twice after handling raw meat and poultry just to be on the safe side.

What if I don’t have enough room in my fridge?

You need to think about making space quickly, because it is not just the raw turkey that needs storing, it will be the left overs too – and believe me they are even more important! So at this time of the year it is a good idea to carry out a “fridge audit.”

Is there is something in your fridge that's out of date get rid of it! What about all those half empty bottles and jars of things that say “refrigerate and eat within 2 days of opening” you opened 6 months ago? Throw them away!

Also for a few days it won’t harm to store pickled onions, ketchup, chutneys etc in a cool box in the garage to make room for the high risk foods.

Vegetables, fruit and un-prepared salad items such as tomatoes, cucumber and peppers can all be left in a cold area such as the garage. If you need to, protect against pests by storing in a cold box.

If it's cold outside you could even leave milk outside in a cool box (out of direct subnlight). You can also freeze skimmed milk if you have space in the freezer

Get some ice for the freezer and use this in ice boxes for wine and Champagne if space is at a premium.

What temperature should the fridge be?

Ideally below 5 °C.

How do I know what the temperature of the fridge is?

You may have a digital indicator on the fridge but if not use a fridge thermometer, or put a probe thermometer in for a few minutes. You may want to do this occasionally even if you have a read out - they can go wrong.

If your fridge is not cold enough, turn it down. I would turn it to its lowest setting anyway as it is going to be working hard over the festive period.

What if I have a frozen turkey?

You need to defrost it all the way through before cooking. The safest place is in the fridge, on the bottom shelf, in its cooking tray to catch the drip. Check the label for a guide about how long it takes – it is a few days usually so don’t leave it till the last minute!

Don’t be tempted to speed things up and defrost your turkey at room temperature or the bacteria on the outside will have a field day multiplying whilst the interior is frozen.

If you cook it when it is not defrosted the bacteria in the frozen parts will wstart growing as the heat won’t reach the middle.

Dispose of the drip carefully as it is likely to contain some nasty bacteria, so disinfect the sink after you have poured it away.

How do I know it my turkey is cooked?

The label will give you an idea of oven temperatures and times so you can plan your day.

Don’t stuff the turkey as this adds to the weight and can make it more difficult for heat to penetrate. Put stuffing in a separate tray.

I always use a thermometer to check that it is cooked. Make sure you disinfect the probe tip by dunking in boiling water first (a cup of just boiled water will do), then place it in the thickest parts of the bird – do a few places as the heat may not be evenly distributed.

If you want an easy life, you are looking for a temperature of at least 75 °C.  If you want to take a bit more time over it, you can cook to a slightly lower temperature, for example 72 °C for 2 minutes – it is highly likely that after you take it out it will carry on cooking and actually rise in temperature as it rests – keep an eye on it. By taking the temperature you will find you get a much better eating quality because you won’t OVER cook it!

Is it OK to cook my turkey on a low heat overnight to save time in the morning?

I really don’t recommend it. Low temperature cooking can be incredibly dangerous even in experienced hands - and let’s face it, we don’t cook such a big item very often. If you are not careful you could be incubating bacteria rather than killing them off! The last thing you want is to poison your friends and family especially as you may have elderly relations and young children at the table.

Arrange your day so dinner is at about 4pm then you won't need to do any over-night cooking – leave that to the professionals. The safest thing to do is cook your turkey on the day. Once it is in the oven, it really isn’t much hassle.

What do I do with left-overs?

All cooked and ready-to-eat foods - even vegetables -  can cause food poisoning. After your dinner, if you do nothing else, gather up your left overs and put them in the fridge. They will be cold enough by the time you have had Christmas Pudding.

Always wash your hands well before handling left-overs

You also might want to slice left over meat, cover and place in the fridge, break down the bird so that it takes up less space.

Put all the veg in one dish, cover and place in the fridge

Don’t forget to refrigerate left over gravy too – bacteria just love this!

If you boil up the bones for stock, then when it is done, strain and then put the covered pan of stock in a sink of cold water for 30 minutes to cool down, and then decant into smaller containers, label and freeze.

How long can I safely keep my left overs for?

In the freezer bacteria don’t grow, so left-overs are quite safe there until you want them. But I would not keep left overs placed in the fridge on Christmas day any for longer than 27th December.

Bacteria can still grow slowly in a fridge, and the warmer your fridge, the faster they grow, so keep an eye on the temperature  - especially as the family will be opening the door to dip in for drinks and snacks.


Dr Lisa Acklery is an expert in the commercial food safety arena, working as an expert witness for food law and practice, and is regularly called upon to comment on public hygiene issues in the media. She also appears on prime time consumer shows such as Watchdog, Rogue Restaurants and Holiday Hit Squad. Visit her website The Hygiene Doctor.


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