Stuffing a Turkey, Tips for Cooking a Stuffed Turkey
One of the most beloved accompaniments for poultry is stuffing, and there can be quite a bit of confusion over how to cook a turkey with the stuffing in place. In recent years as concerns over food safety have grown, many home cooks have approached this with trepidation – but there is no need to be worried. There are a few things that you can do before you start to make sure that the turkey and stuffing both are as delicious as possible, while maintaining all safety procedures. This makes sure your dishes are delectable AND healthy.
The first thing to keep in mind is that temperature control is a must. Before you begin cooking, all of your ingredients must be maintained at a temperature of no more than 40F. This applies to your stuffing as well as your bird. Whatever recipe you use, take a few minutes to think about what is going into the stuffing, and what ingredients need to be ‘red flagged’ for potential issues. Eggs are a prime ingredient in many recipes, as are various shellfish such as oysters. These are absolutely wonderful, especially when cooked together with the juices from the bird itself.
Each of these ingredients can be fragile as far as temperature goes though, so it’s very important to assemble a stuffing only when you are ready to immediately use it. It’s also critical that you remember that once the dressing itself goes into the bird; it needs to already be cooked. This is because by the time the heat of the oven reaches the interior of the bird, the turkey itself will already be done. All you’re going to do with the stuffing is to heat it thoroughly. So before you place anything into the cavity of the bird, it has to be cooked through already. Sauté off any vegetables or seafood. If using binders such as egg, which needs only minimal cooking to reach safe temperatures, make sure you add them at the last possible moment, and then immediately place all stuffing into or around the bird and /or an additional casserole dish and start the actual turkey cooking then.
The USDA calls the temperature range between 40F and 140F the ‘danger zone’ for turkey. This is the range at which salmonella can survive and thrive, so the less time a turkey (including the stuffing inside which collects the turkey juices) spends at this temperature range the better. The cook needs to make sure the bird is escorted through this zone in the most expeditious manner possible. So assemble your stuffing, loosely pack
it into the cavities of the bird, and immediately get the turkey into the oven.
If you are assembling ahead of time, you can still take steps to make sure you cut time, but not risk serving up food poisoning. Instead of working all the way through to the stuffing of the bird itself, do your prep work and assemble ‘dangerous’ ingredients so they’re ready – but not actually in the process yet. For example, get all your vegetables chopped, herbs or spices measured out and set aside, broth or wine or other liquid measured and covered…these steps will still cut your time later for actually assembly, but not cross the line into the danger zone. All you’ll have to do is throw the final things together in a hot pan to make sure they are thoroughly cooked, and proceed as usual.
When placing the stuffing into the bird, be careful not to pack the stuffing in too tightly. The best way to do this is to use a spoon, so that the stuffing isn’t too dense. This helps ensure that the stuffing comes up to temperature correctly. Too densely packed, and the stuffing won’t heat by the time the bird is overcooked. No fear though – if you have plenty of extra stuffing that won’t fit, pack it around the outside of the bird in the roasting pan, where it will absorb the lovely juices just as well. Or if you wish to preserve the pan drippings for gravy, place the extra stuffing in a buttered casserole dish and bake it off alongside the bird for the final hour of roasting. Apart from the bird, if the ingredients were well kept and chilled, the cross contamination risk drops to very low.
The final tip for cooking a stuffed turkey is to use a meat thermometer on the stuffing itself – not just on the meat. A thermometer is the most wonderful tool for roasting meats – it gives the cook absolute control and frees them from worry over all the variables that can affect cooking times. With a thermometer you can forget everything except one little number – 165F. That’s the safe temperature when turkey reaches perfect doneness. When cooking a stuffed turkey, this number applies to the stuffing as well as the bird itself. So once the internal temperature of the bird has reached 165F, take the temperature of the stuffing as well – you want to make sure that this number has been reached all over. Think of the bird and the stuffing as a single unit at this point, and you need to ensure that all parts have reached the correct temperature.
That’s all there is to it! Otherwise the bird can be treated just as you would cook an unstuffed one – seasoning, brines and roasting methods can all still apply. Remember the danger zone, keep in mind the state of the stuffing before you use it, and make sure you have a good meat thermometer. You’ll be able to grace your table with a fabulous stuffed bird – and with sides of salmonella. Follow the rules of food safety, and you’ll be Golden.