Nutrition Column – Traveling Safely with Turkey Dinner

You’re off to grandmother’s house for turkey-day dinner. This year, you’re the one who gets to bring turkey with all the trimmings. How far can you safely travel with turkey dinner in tow? Here are answers to questions commonly received by home economists with the Meat and Poultry Hotline about safe turkey travel.

Q: Can a turkey be cooked the day ahead and then taken to someone’s house the next day?

A: Yes, but for safety’s sake, you shouldn’t travel with the whole bird intact. Cook the turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit to an internal temperature of 180 degrees F as measured with a meat thermometer in the thigh and several other places.

Once the turkey is done, let stand 20 minutes, then remove any stuffing and carve all the meat from the turkey, leaving small parts such as legs, thighs and wings intact if desired. Divide the carved turkey meat and turkey parts into small, shallow containers or packages. Refrigerate the containers if you plan to use within two days; otherwise, freeze the containers.

When preparing to travel, pack the turkey and other perishable foods in an insulated cooler with a cold source such as ice or frozen gel packs. Make sure you have enough ice to keep the turkey cold until arrival. At your destination, transfer the foods to a refrigerator until ready to reheat. Right before serving time, reheat in a 325 F oven or in a microwave oven until the foods reach an internal temperature of 165 F or are steaming hot.

Q: How long will a raw or cooked turkey keep unrefrigerated for transporting to someone’s house?

A: No longer than two hours. For either raw or cooked turkey, it’s a good idea to use an insulated cooler as a carrier. Raw turkeys actually transport better than cooked ones. Never try to transport a cooked, stuffed turkey. To transport an unstuffed one that’s freshly cooked, take it out of the oven, immediately wrap in foil and put directly into an insulated cooler. Place in the warmest spot in the car and plan to get to your destination within an hour or less. If your travel time will be longer than two hours, consider carving and cooling your turkey ahead of time to be reheated on site.

Q: Can turkey be partially cooked ahead of time and then finished later?

A: No! Partial cooking of meat or poultry is very unsafe. Cooking must be done in one continuous operation to assure the destruction of bacteria that cause food-borne illness. It is safe, however, to partially cook turkey in a microwave oven or other oven immediately before transferring the turkey to a heated grill or a preheated conventional oven for finishing.

If the above recommendations don’t fit within your time and travel needs, it may be time to consider abandoning the idea of taking your feast across country and look for new traditions to share with family and friends.

For more answers to your turkey questions, call the Meat and Poultry Hot Line at 1-800-535-4555. The hot line is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mountain Time.

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by Pat Kendall, R.D., Ph.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension