How to cook a Christmas turkey so it won't poison anyone: four easy rules

Following the tragic food poisoning outbreak at Dan Ryan’s, here are some professional tips for safely preparing and roasting that Christmas turkey

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 2:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2016, 9:02am

The tragic death of domestic helper Miguela Secolles, 42, after eating a Thanksgiving dinner at Dan Ryan’s may have some worried about the safety of their Christmas dinner.

Woman dies seven days after food poisoning from Dan Ryan’s Thanksgiving meal

The cause of death has not yet been established, but at least 50 people fell ill with food poisoning after eating the celebration meal in Dan Ryan’s Harbour City outlet. Salmonella D has been found in stool samples from three patients.

Salmonella D is the most common form of salmonella gastroenteritis. It is found in many domestic and wild animals. Intensive farming methods are thought to have led to an increase of prevalence in farm animals. The contamination occurs from faeces and washing products in contaminated water.

Contaminated meat looks and smells normal.

Salmonella bacteria multiply rapidly in warm, humid conditions. The danger zone for growth is from 4.45 degrees Celsius to 60 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit). Heat easily kills the bacteria. A temperature of 74 degrees Celsius (165 degrees Fahrenheit) is considered sufficient to kill salmonella.

The biggest cause of food poisoning from eating turkey is frozen birds that have not been adequately thawed before cooking. Even after a few hours when the breasts and legs feel thawed, the centre cavity can still be frozen. When an unthawed turkey is roasted, the skin can be crispy and the inside temperature can still be within the danger zone, allowing the salmonella to survive and multiply.

Cross contamination is the next most common culprit. If a cook touches a raw bird (to stuff it or rub butter on the skin) they will pick up the bacteria and if they don’t wash their hands thoroughly, anything they touch – knives, chopping board, plates, oven cloths, gravy, vegetables and cooked birds – will be contaminated.

If a restaurant is cooking a large batch of turkeys, there may be cooked birds and raw birds together in the kitchen. Careless handling can easily lead to cross contamination. If birds are cooked in advance and left to cool in the kitchen they pass back through the danger zone for bacteria.

Washing turkeys can also spread bacteria onto the cook and around the kitchen when the water splashes.

By following a few simple rules you can enjoy a tasty and safe turkey dinner.

Make sure your bird is completely defrosted

It takes about two days to defrost a 4.5 kilo turkey in the refrigerator, and longer for larger birds. If you’re in a hurry, put the bird – in its original packaging – in a large, cold water bath so it’s completely surrounded by water, leaving it for an hour for every kilo.

If you’re not preparing it immediately after defrosting it, refrigerate it until you’re ready to cook it.

As a last resort, you can stand the bird up in a sink of cold water under a tap with water running gently though the cavity for a couple of hours. This defrosts the inside much more quickly and does not adversely affect the flavour or texture of the meat.

Prevent cross contamination: wash your hands again and again

Keep the raw turkey away from any cooked food or raw ingredients that aren’t going to be cooked. After you have handled the raw bird, thoroughly wash and sanitise all the surfaces, chopping board and other equipment. Whenever you touch the turkey, wash your hands with antibacterial soap and hot water before you do anything else (including touching your face).

Cook the turkey thoroughly

Cooking times for turkey vary depending on if you’re using a “low and slow” oven temperature (which takes approximately an hour per kilo) or high heat (about 45 minutes per kilo), and whether or not the bird is stuffed. The safest and most dependable technique is to check the internal temperature with a probe-type meat thermometer, inserting it into the thickest part of the bird – where the thigh meets the body, but not touching the bone. If it’s a stuffed bird, insert the thermometer probe into the centre of the stuffing. The internal temperature should reach 74 degrees Celsius.

If you can’t get a thermometer, you can pierce the skin where the leg meets the body and clear juices should come out. The same thing should happen if you tip the bird up. Any sign of blood in the juice means the turkey is not ready.

Remember that the colour of the skin is not an indicator of how well-cooked a turkey is. If your bird is already brown but hasn’t reached the right temperature yet, cover it with foil to stop it burning and continue cooking.

Some chefs put a litre or so of stock or water into the roasting tray and cover the turkey with foil while it cooks. This combined with a keeps the meat moist and the steam helps heat the inside more thoroughly than dry heat. The foil is removed for the last 20-30 minutes to brown the skin.

Reheat turkey meat safely

If you are a fan of leftovers, and you didn’t leave your roasted turkey sitting out in the warm for more than two hours, you can safely store cooked turkey in the fridge for three to four days. The meat must be reheated to 74 degrees Celsius before serving.

Simon O'Reilly trained as a chef and has worked in five-star hotel and restaurant kitchens in London and Hong Kong