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Stuffing a Turkey: Is It Safe?

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

Before you start preparing for the Thanksgiving feast at your restaurant or home, it is important to understand why stuffing a turkey is unsafe and learn the proper way to prepare stuffing.

What Is Stuffing?

Stuffing is a mixture that usually consists of dried bread, such as cornbread, croutons, or breadcrumbs, which is then 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.

One of the benefits of stuffing is that it's extremely versatile and works well with various flavors. While turkey is most commonly associated with stuffing, you can stuff many foods, like chicken, pork, mushrooms, and bell peppers, just to name a few.

Stuffing vs Dressing

Thanksgiving stuffing and dressing

When looking up stuffing recipes, you may see it being referred to as "dressing" instead of "stuffing." So, what is the difference between dressing and stuffing?

Dressing is a name for stuffing that is cooked separately from poultry, meat, or vegetables and then 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 everywhere else, most people refer to both as stuffing.

Is It Safe to Cook Stuffing Inside of the Turkey?

No, most chefs and food professionals agree that stuffing a turkey is not safe, although many residential cooks are still skeptical for the sake of tradition.

Why Is It Dangerous to Stuff a Turkey?

Stuffing is very porous, and during the cooking process, juices from the turkey that contain bacteria drip down and are absorbed by the stuffing. Plus, when checking the temperature, many chefs neglect to check the temperature of the stuffing, which also needs to be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, there is still bacteria in the stuffing that can cause guests to get sick and puts them at risk of salmonella poisoning.

If cooking stuffing inside a turkey is unsafe, then why do people still insist on doing it? One of the main arguments for stuffing a turkey is the taste. Some chefs claim that stuffing cooked inside the turkey has a more savory and delicious flavor because it absorbs the juices from the turkey. Regardless of the truth behind this, there are several ways that you can enhance the flavor of your turkey without putting your guests at risk of getting sick.

How to Cook a Stuffed Turkey

If you insist on cooking your Thanksgiving feast the traditional way, there is a way to cook stuffing inside a turkey safely. Here are the steps created by the USDA to properly cook a stuffed turkey:

checking temperature of turkey
  1. Put your stuffing together and warm it up. The stuffing should be moist and warm before you put it in the turkey. Bacteria is destroyed faster if it's in a moist environment, and if the stuffing is warm when it goes in, it will heat up to a safe temperature faster.
  2. Pack the stuffing inside the turkey just before putting the turkey in the oven. Additionally, don't pack the stuffing too tightly; you should use 3/4 cup of stuffing for every pound of turkey.
  3. Check the temperature of the turkey as well as the stuffing. Insert your thermometer into the thigh of the turkey and the center of the stuffing. Both the turkey and stuffing must reach a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be safe to eat. You will need to cook a stuffed turkey 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 after the turkey and stuffing have reached a food safe temperature and have been taken out of the oven.
  5. Refrigerate the leftovers no more than 2 hours after you take the turkey out of the oven. The stuffing will be safe to eat for 3 or 4 days, but make sure to heat it up to 165 degrees when reheating your leftovers.

Tips for Preparing Stuffing

There are several other things you can do to ensure that you serve your guests delicious and safe stuffing whether you plan on cooking it in your turkey or not.

Cooking Stuffing in a Turkey

If you do plan on cooking stuffing inside a turkey, here are a few extra tips to make sure that your turkey turns out moist and delicious and your stuffing is safe to eat:

thanksgiving turkey dinner on set table
  • 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 the heat in and bring your stuffing up 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, but this is only creating more time for bacteria to soak into your stuffing.

Cooking Stuffing Separately

Another popular option is to cook the stuffing and turkey separately. Here are various benefits to preparing your stuffing and turkey separately:

  • 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.
  • Leaving the stuffing out means that you would be able to deep fry your turkey for juicy and crispy results.

Stuffing a turkey can be dangerous and unsanitary but there are steps you can take to prepare stuffing inside a turkey safely. You can also try some alternative ways to prepare your favorite side dish to avoid health concerns. So, when Thanksgiving rolls around this year, make sure that you’re serving your guests safe stuffing.

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