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Stuffing a Turkey: Is It Safe?

Turkey has been a staple at Thanksgiving dinner tables for generations. Often times, you’ll find it accompanied by stuffing. The traditional way to prepare stuffing is to cook it inside the turkey, however, chefs and other professionals have since become wary of this method due to health concerns.

Before you start preparing for your Thanksgiving feast, it is important to understand what stuffing is, why stuffing a turkey is unsafe, and how to properly prepare your stuffing.

What Is Stuffing?

Thanksgiving stuffing and dressing

Stuffing is a side dish that typically consists of dried bread, such as cornbread, croutons, or breadcrumbs, mixed with meat, onions, celery, and sage. The mixture is then inserted into meat or vegetables and roasted. There are many different varieties of this holiday side dish.

Stuffing is an extremely versatile food that works well with various flavors. While it's most commonly paired with turkey, it can also be included with chicken, pork, mushrooms, and bell peppers, among other foods.

Stuffing vs Dressing

The difference between stuffing and dressing depends on how it’s prepared and regional traditions. Dressing is a name for stuffing that is cooked separately from poultry, meat, or vegetables and served alongside it, rather than inside it. In the American South, many people use the term “dressing” to refer to both stuffing and dressing, but in most states people refer to both as stuffing.

Is It Safe to Cook Stuffing Inside of the Turkey?

Most chefs and food professionals agree that stuffing a turkey is not safe, although some residential cooks are still skeptical for the sake of tradition.

Why Is It Dangerous to Stuff a Turkey?

Stuffing is porous, and during the cooking process, juices from the turkey that may contain bacteria drip down and are absorbed by the stuffing. Additionally, when checking the temperature, many chefs neglect to check the temperature of the stuffing, which also needs to be cooked at 165 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, bacteria remains in the stuffing, which can cause guests to get sick and puts them at risk for salmonella poisoning. Any stuffing that contains meat juices must be cooked to the same minimum internal temperature as the meat itself in order to ensure any bacteria is killed during the cooking process.

How to Cook a Stuffed Turkey

There is a safe way to cook stuffing inside a turkey if you plan on preparing your Thanksgiving feast the traditional way. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends following the steps below to properly and safely cook a stuffed turkey.

checking temperature of turkey
  1. Cook raw ingredients before stuffing the turkey: Raw meat, oysters, or sausage used as ingredients in the stuffing should be cooked before mixing the stuffing ingredients. Avoid mixing your wet and dry ingredients until just before stuffing the turkey to preserve a moist enviornmemt, which will help to destroy bacteria faster.
  2. Pack the stuffing inside the turkey just before putting it in the oven: Be sure not to pack the stuffing too tightly. It’s best to use 3/4 cup of stuffing for every pound of turkey.
  3. Check the temperature of the turkey as well as the stuffing: When checking the temperature, insert the thermometer into the thigh of the turkey and into the center of the stuffing. Both the turkey and stuffing must reach a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be safe to eat. A stuffed turkey will need to be cooked for approximately an hour longer than the time listed for an unstuffed turkey.
  4. Let the meat rest under foil for at least 20 minutes: Once the turkey and stuffing have reached a safe temperature and fully cooked, remove them from the oven and let them sit for at least 20 minutes.
  5. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours after they’ve been removed from the oven: In general, your stuffing should be safe to eat for 3 to 4 days after it’s been cooked. However, when you reheat your leftovers, be sure to heat them up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tips for Cooking Stuffing

There are several things you can do to ensure you serve safe stuffing to your guests. Below, we’ve compiled a list of extra tips to make sure the next time you prepare stuffing in a turkey, it comes out delicious and safe to eat.

Cooking Stuffing in a Turkey

  • Once the turkey has reached 165 degrees, carve off the white meat and let it rest. Then, put the remaining turkey and stuffing back in the oven until the stuffing reaches 165 degrees. White meat dries out faster than dark meat, so taking it off ensures that you can cook your stuffing safely without drying out the meat.
  • When your turkey is 2/3 of the way done cooking, create an aluminum foil tent over it. The aluminum foil will help keep heat in and raise your stuffing to safe temperature faster.
  • Stuff your turkey right before it goes into the oven. Many home chefs will stuff their turkey the night before in an attempt to save time on Thanksgiving Day. Unfortunately, this only creates more time for bacteria to soak into your stuffing.

Cooking Stuffing Outside the Turkey

thanksgiving turkey dinner on set table
  • If you cook your stuffing and turkey separately, you can still present your customers with a beautiful display of a perfectly cooked turkey that is overflowing with stuffing. Simply stuff your turkey with cooked stuffing once it has finished cooking and is resting.
  • A benefit of cooking the stuffing separately is that you can make larger quantities of it for your customers.
  • If you make it separately, you can give your stuffing a crispy texture that is an excellent complement to the savory and juicy turkey and creamy mashed potatoes.
  • Leave the stuffing out and try deep frying your turkey for crispy skin and a juicy interior.

While stuffing a turkey can sometimes be dangerous and unsanitary, there are steps you can take to prepare stuffing inside a turkey safely. Additionally, there are alternative ways to prepare your favorite side dish to avoid health concerns. When Thanksgiving rolls around this year, make sure that you pay attention to the tips above to create a safe holiday meal.

Posted in: Food Safety | Seasonal | Kitchen & Cooking Tips | By Richard Traylor
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