How to tackle Thanksgiving with confidence

Take the right steps to make your turkey perfect, then turn your leftovers into new creations

Dinner table | FILE PHOTO

WILSON — The Thanksgiving holiday is upon us, which means an opportunity to give thanks, gather with family and friends around the table, roast a turkey, and dine on an abundance of side dishes. When the holiday concludes, there are days filled with leftovers.

To help our readers prepare for time spent in the kitchen this holiday, we spoke with experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on ways to safety prepare, cook and store your turkey, as well as a North Carolina chef on ways to revamp the standard leftover known as the turkey sandwich.

With more than 45 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving Day, this meal can often become one of the largest and most stressful gatherings for many, but it doesn’t have to be.

“Cooking a turkey is not that hard and one shouldn’t panic,” said Marianne Gravely, senior technical information specialist on the Meat and Poultry Hotline. “People always get nervous with people coming to visit and stress rises, but don’t panic. When you put a turkey in the oven, it cooks. You don’t have to know that much about a turkey to cook it, but you need to do so safely.”

One of the most important facts to know about preparing a turkey, is that a back porch or garage is not the equivalent of a refrigerator.

“Keep the turkey cold,” said Gravely. “No matter where in the country you live, it is not cold enough on your back porch or in your garage. It needs to be stored in a refrigerator. If you are buying a frozen turkey, you want to thaw in in the refrigerator.”

In the few days remaining until Thanksgiving, all turkeys should be in the refrigerator.

“It takes about one day for every 5 pounds of weight to thaw, and then it is safe for about another two days,” said Gravely. “When deciding on what type of turkey to buy, use the rule of one pound per person which includes some for leftovers.”

When preparing the turkey, wash your hands, but not your turkey.

You might not realize that while washing your hands before cooking is the simplest way to stop the spread of bacteria, washing your turkey is the easiest way to spread bacteria all over your kitchen.

“Cooking the turkey will kill any bacteria on the turkey’s skin,” said Gravely. “The bacteria on a turkey is different than bacteria on hands or dirt of fruit and vegetables.”

According to the 2016 Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Survey, 68 percent of consumers wash poultry in the kitchen sink, which is not recommended by the USDA. Research shows that washing meat or poultry can splash bacteria around your kitchen by up to three feet, contaminating countertops, towels and other food.

The exception to this rule is brining. When rinsing brine off of a turkey, be sure to remove all other food or objects from the sink, layer the area with paper towels and use a slow stream of water to avoid splashing.

Once the turkey is placed in the oven, it is important to check the temperature with a food thermometer.

“Check the temperature in three areas, the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh. Each area should reach 165 degrees Fahrenehit,” said Gravely.

Gravely also recommends following the “two-hour rule.”

“Put food away in the refrigerator within two-hours of serving, and placing the whole turkey on a platter inside the refrigerator isn’t safe either,” she said.

After two hours, food falls into what’s known as the danger zone of temperatures between 40-140 F, where bacteria can rapidly multiply. If food is eaten at those temperatures, your guests could get sick. Turkey should be cut into smaller slices and refrigerated along with other perishable items, such as potatoes, gravy and vegetables. Leftovers should stay safe in the refrigerator for four days.

If you’ve served a traditional Thanksgiving turkey, sweet potatoes, ham, pecan pie and more, you are likely to have plenty of leftovers. How can those be remade into something different to avoid a turkey sandwich for four days or the same dinner three days in a row?

Chef Adam Pettigrew of Pups Steakhouse in Wilson offers his interpretations on ways to spice up and redefine ordinary leftovers.

“Sweet potatoes, turkey, ham, green beans and pecan pie are all traditional Thanksgiving menu items in the South,” said Pettigrew. “If you plan ahead, you can have a menu for Thanksgiving and create a new menu of options from your leftover items.”

If you have plenty of turkey left over, try a new twist on an old favorite.

“Make a turkey salad as you would a traditional chicken salad,” said Pettigrew. “Chop the turkey as you would the chicken. In addition to celery, onions and mayonnaise, use leftover cranberries or pecans as an add-in.”

Another option for the leftover turkey is to create a turkey soup, similar to that of your traditional chicken soup. Or make a turkey curry over rice or turkey tacos. Use those leftover sweet potatoes to create a tasty breakfast dish.

“Create sweet potato pancakes. Mash the sweet potatoes, add flour, sugar, eggs and create a batter-like consistency to toss on the griddle,” said Pettigrew.

“Use leftover ham to create ham and eggs in the skillet for breakfast,” he continued. “Thanksgiving food and the leftovers after are your food and your choosing. It’s a time to get the family together and share a meal over food, so be creative and enjoy the holiday.”