As we move into the month of November, our minds start thinking about Thanksgiving and all the related details that need our planning and attention. Here are a few things to think about early this month.
Is there room in your refrigerator for that turkey you’re going to thaw? It takes 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator — that means if you have a 20-pound turkey, you’ll need to get it into the refrigerator at least five days before you want to cook it. Even if you’re going to buy a fresh turkey, you’re still going to need refrigerator space for a day or two.
It’s no coincidence National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day is observed annually on Nov. 15. Holiday hosts will need space in the refrigerator for thawing the turkey beforehand, and afterward for all of the special holiday food and upcoming leftovers. Don’t expose your expensive holiday specialties to lurking bacteria and mold, or suffer the embarrassment when guests can’t find a place to store their items for the holiday buffet. Get together a bucket filled with warm soapy water, disinfectant, a sponge and a garbage bag, and tackle that refrigerator early in November.
The same goes for the freezer. There are usually sales on whole turkeys just before or just after the holiday. Do you have space for an extra turkey at a great price? If a whole turkey is too big for a regular family meal, ask the meat man to cut the frozen turkey in half or quarters and rewrap for the freezer. His meat saw can cut through a frozen turkey with ease.
Another somewhat related question: Can you use that year-old turkey in your freezer for the holiday meal? Technically, yes.
Frozen turkeys will keep for a long time if held below zero degrees. They’re usually packed in air- and water-resistant plastic wraps that help prevent loss of quality during freezer storage. The general recommendation for freezer storage is one year, if the food has been frozen that whole time. This is a quality recommendation and not a food safety deadline.
One idea is to thaw and cook that year-old turkey early in the month as a “trial run” — because if it’s a year-old you probably haven’t cooked a whole turkey in a long time. This will give you practice — and then purchase a new turkey for the holiday. It isn’t necessary for safety, but you really want the best quality for your holiday meal. With any food storage, remember FIFO — first in, first out.
Another early November task is to find the food thermometer. You might have an old meat roasting thermometer rolling around in the back of your silverware drawer. These can be put in the food inside the oven. They work better than nothing.
A better bet would be to invest in a new instant-read thermometer. These thermometers are designed to read the temperature in just a few seconds, and they do not go into the oven (the heat of the oven will ruin them.) Digital ones are great and can be used for many different types of foods. But even the most basic instant-read thermometer is an important kitchen tool for food safety. Buy a basic instant-read food thermometer for around $5 to $8 at discount and grocery stores; digital ones can cost $15 to $20 and higher, depending on the features you choose. Check hardware stores for a digital thermometer or purchase one online.
With these basic things out of the way, you can get on with the rest of the planning for your holiday meal. Sometimes when you get in the store you see so many ideas for side dishes, desserts, appetizers and beverages that you can get overwhelmed and feel unprepared or make excessive purchases. It is a good idea to plan your menu, research and print your recipes and stick to a shopping list.
And don’t forget to enlist help from your guests, if needed. The joy of the holiday is a bounty of delicious food choices, and it’s easier on the cook if others bring some of the delicacies to share for the feast.
Whether it's your first attempt at cooking a turkey, or you’ve been hosting the holiday meal for years, you might have questions or need additional resources. Feel free to call me at the Hays office of the Cottonwood Extension District, (785) 628-9430, or check out the online holiday resources from K-State Research and Extension at www.ksre.ksu.edu/foodsafety/topics/holiday.html.
Linda K. Beech is Cottonwood District Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.