I. Thawing the Turkey
The turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator, in it's original wrapper. It should not be left out to thaw at room temperature. When the outside of the turkey begins to thaw, bacteria will begin to grow. It is very possible to produce toxins that cooking may not destroy.
Admittedly, this is a lengthy procedure - allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. This would mean a 20-pound turkey could take 4 days to thaw.
If you do not have this amount of time, another option is to thaw in cold water. Submerge the turkey (still in its original wrapper) into a very deep sink of cold water. (No matter how cold you think the water is, it is not as cold as a frozen turkey, and will thaw the bird.)
The water should be changed every 30-45 minutes in order to keep it cold. Do NOT use warm water.
This process will take about 30 minutes per pound. Now your 20-pound turkey will take about 10 hours - but you will need to stay with it.
Although microwave thawing is not recommended, it is safe. Obviously, you must be sure your oven is large enough. One of the downsides to thawing in the microwave is that it will produce uneven results, even with a rotating tray.
If you opt for the microwave method, you must cook the turkey immediately after thawing - do not return to the refrigerator to cook at a later time.
The best advice is to give yourself enough time to safely that your turkey.
II. Safely Handling Stuffing/Dressing
Here are some basic, but quite important tips, for safely stuffing your turkey.
The turkey should never be stuffed in advance and then cooked at a later time. You may think breaking the task into 2 times will save you but it is very dangerous and will almost assuredly result in tainted food.
However, you can chop vegetables such as celery, onions and carrots ahead of time, or prepare your bread. The important thing to remember is that any liquid ingredient (including water) should not be added to the dry ingredients until immediately before stuffing and cooking.
The cavity of the turkey should be rinsed out before being stuffed.
The stuffing should be placed in the bird immediately before placing in the oven.
Try not to overstuff. Your dressing will need room to expand.
Your stuffing contains potentially harmful ingredients, such as eggs, meat and broth. In order to insure their safe handling, the stuffing should be cooked to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees.
Remove the stuffing from the cavity of the turkey before you carve your bird.
Refrigerate leftovers immediately after eating and use within 2 days.
III. Safely Cooking Your Turkey
It would be to your advantage to but a meat thermometer. Dark meat takes longer to cook, so you will want to test the temperature in a thick part of the turkey thigh, away from the bone. The temperature should read 180 degrees in order to be safely cooked.
Your pan should be large enough to give the turkey some room on all sides.
The giblet bag should be removed from the inside of the turkey.
If you are going to cook your stuffing in the bird rather than in a separate casserole, be sure to stuff it immediately prior to cooking.
The safest margin for storing leftovers is to not leave the turkey out more than 2 hours after it is taken from the oven.
Leftover turkey, stored covered in the refrigerator will keep up to 4 days.
If you allow the turkey to rest for 20 minutes or so before carving the juices will re-distribute and the turkey will be easier to carve.
It is safe to hold the turkey in a reduced oven of approximately 200 degrees while waiting for guests or other foods to be ready. However, keep your meat thermometer in the turkey and do not let the temperature drop below 140 degrees. This time, put the thermometer in a thinner, white meat section, because that will be the first temperature to drop.
If the turkey is done ahead of schedule, it is safe to hold it in the oven at a reduced temperature, 200°F.
Leave the thermometer in the turkey and make sure that the temperature of the turkey does not drop below 140°F during holding time.You may want to keep the turkey covered so it does not dry out.
As we mentioned above, leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator within 2 hours after cooking is completed. Leaving perishable food at room temperature for more than 2 hours can result in food poisoning from bacteria growth.
It is safer to store leftover food in a number of small containers instead of one large one. Small portions will chill quicker and therefore stay fresher and safer. If you want to freeze some of the leftover turkey, do so right away. Do not wait until a few days later when the turkey has been in the refrigerator.