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A moist bird? USDA’s latest oven ruling makes it a lot more likely

THIS year, for the first time in decades, the government says it’s safe to serve moist turkey.

In April, a committee of food safety specialists working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed that cooking poultry to a final temperature of 165 degrees was enough to ensure it was free from salmonella or other harmful bacteria.

This reverses a long-standing recommendation that turkey be cooked to a minimum of 180 degrees, a temperature all but guaranteed to produce a bird with white meat as dry as sawdust.

The latest recommendation also comes into line with the temperatures that cookbook authors and chefs have been touting for years. Indeed, some professionals even recommend removing turkeys from the oven at temperatures as low as 150 degrees, allowing retained heat to provide a 10- to 15-degree “push” to the final temperature.

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“This is an issue that has come up repeatedly,” says Bruce Aidells, coauthor of “The Complete Meat Cookbook.” “But I didn’t realize they were still saying 180 degrees. That is really, really bad. Thank God, they changed it.”

Aidells, founder of a sausage company that bears his name, is married to San Francisco chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard restaurant. The couple roast a lot of turkeys through the holidays, and Aidells says in their kitchens they aim for a final temperature of 160 degrees.

Oddly, now that the 180-degree recommendation has been overturned, no one can remember where it came from in the first place. “I’ve looked all over and I really have no idea,” says Diane Van, manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. “I think it happened sometime back in the 1980s, but I don’t know what it was based on.”

Ostensibly, minimum temperatures are established to reduce the risk from salmonella and other food-borne illnesses. But USDA studies show that salmonella in turkey is all but eliminated if the bird spends less than 30 seconds at an internal temperature of 160 degrees. At 165 degrees, its studies show, “the required lethalities are achieved instantly.”

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But while heat kills bacteria, it also dries out meat.

The USDA temperature recommendation applies to stuffing too. But because the bread heats so much more slowly than protein, in order for the center of the stuffing to reach 165 degrees, you’d have to cook the breast to at least 180. Because of this, many chefs and cookbook authors no longer stuff their holiday turkeys.

Instead, they cook their stuffings on the side. If you moisten the bread with some turkey broth before you bake it, and stir in some of the turkey pan juices after carving, it’s hard to tell the difference.

-- Russ Parsons

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The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at (888) 674-6854 weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time. On Thanksgiving, it will be open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. You can e-mail the hotline at mphotline.fsis@usda.gov or visit the website at www.fsis.usda.gov/Food_Safety_Education/usda_meat__poultryhotline/ind ex.asp.


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