Wait, we don't need to clean our Thanksgiving turkey?

And how to avoid spreading bacteria in the process

Published November 21, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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Prepping for Thanksgiving is no easy feat. From battling amusement park-long lines in grocery stores to artfully arranging pumpkins on your front porch to rolling out pie crust after pie crust after pie crust, it takes weeks to get ready for the feast of the year. And at the center of it all — literally — is the turkey. Do you wet brine or dry brine? Fill the cavity with lemons and herbs or a cornbread stuffing? Will you roast the turkey the traditional way or try your hand at deep-frying? And wait, is it necessary to clean a turkey before cooking it? Just as there are thousands of recipes for roast turkey, there are many theories about whether or not you should rinse the bird.

Should you rinse a turkey?

In short, no. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), rinsing a raw turkey in the kitchen sink can lead to the spread of bacteria on countertops, nearby food, and other surfaces, which can cause cross-contamination. The contaminated water can spray as far as three feet away, making it nearly impossible to disinfect every single object within reach.

While cleaning a turkey may get rid of some of the bacteria on the bird, the best — and truly only — way to ensure that any bacteria or foodborne pathogens are killed off is by cooking it. According to the USDA, "cooking turkey to the correct internal temperature of 165ºF will kill any bacteria, making washing an unnecessary step." Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh to check the temperature. For a moist, juicy bird, we recommend removing the bird from the oven when it has reached 160℉ to avoid overcooking the meat; the temperature will continue to rise as the bird rests before you carve it.

How to clean a turkey

There's no need to clean a raw turkey with soap and hot water (in fact, that's probably a bad idea). Some recipes may call for rinsing a salty dry brine off a turkey before roasting it. "When rinsing brine off of a turkey, be sure to remove all other food or objects from the sink, layer the area with paper towels, and allow a slow stream of water to avoid splashing," says the USDA. However, we don't recommend doing this step either, as it will not only dilute the flavor of the brined turkey but also prevent the skin from getting crispy and golden brown in the oven.

There are really only two things you absolutely need to do to clean a turkey. First, pat the skin dry with paper towels to remove any excess seasoning or moisture. Second, don't forget to remove the neck, giblets, and any other turkey bits from inside the front and back cavities before stuffing and roasting the bird as directed in the recipe.

By Kelly Vaughan

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Food Food52 Holidays Thanksgiving Turkey