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Cooking a turkey safely begins when you first bring the turkey home. Handling a fresh turkey is different from handling a frozen turkey. After fully thawing a frozen turkey, you treat both turkeys the same.
A fresh turkey should be bought only one or two days before cooking. Make sure that when you purchase your fresh turkey that you do so from a reputable place. You don't want to purchase a previously frozen turkey that is being sold as a fresh turkey. A fresh turkey seems to have better quality than the frozen type.
When you come home from the store, keep the turkey in the same bag that it came in. Place a cookie sheet under the turkey while it is in the refrigerator. The cookie sheet will catch any juices that may leak out of the turkey bag. Do not buy a fresh turkey that comes pre-stuffed. The danger is too high for harmful bacteria that can multiply fast.
Buying a frozen turkey is usually cheaper than buying a fresh one, and it has some other advantages too. For instance, you are able to buy the turkey well ahead of time, when you either have more time or find a great deal on the turkey. A turkey can be frozen indefinitely, but the quality of a frozen turkey diminishes after about a year.
The tricky part in handling a frozen turkey comes when it is time to thaw it out. There are three different safe methods of thawing a turkey. The first (and safest) method is to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. This method can take up to six days. It is best to figure five hours of refrigerator time per pound. Remember to place a cookie sheet or tray under the turkey to catch any juices.
The second method for thawing is the cold-water method. Keep the turkey in the original bag that it came in and place it into a sink or a large container, like a bucket. Cover the turkey with cold water. Change the water every half hour. Before placing the turkey into the water check the bag to make sure that the bag is not torn. If the bag is torn, place the turkey—still in the original bag—into another bag and secure it tightly. The cold-water method usually takes about thirty minutes per pound.
The third method is thawing the bird in the microwave. It is not recommended, but if you must thaw the turkey this way make sure that you follow the manufacturer's instructions for thawing. After thawing the turkey this way, cook it immediately.
Remember to keep thawed turkeys refrigerated until ready to stuff and cook. The only time you would not refrigerate the turkey is if you used the microwave to thaw it. Then you must cook the turkey immediately.