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The Dangerous Reason You Should Never Stuff a Turkey

Julie Blume Benedict
Vintagepix/Shutterstock

Debbie Downer here: Grandma's old-fashioned stuffed turkey recipe could be out to get you. It's true. Cooking stuffing inside a turkey (though delicious!) can cause foodborne illness at worst and dry turkey at best. The good news is you can capture all the flavor of traditional Thanksgiving dinner and still keep your turkey juicy and safe.

What's the problem?

Meat temperature. For food safety, the USDA instructs us to cook a whole turkey until it's reached 165°—including the stuffing! Anything served below that temperature poses the risk of exposure to scary bacteria like salmonella or E. coli. (Don't worry, these organisms are very sensitive to heat, so cooking your food properly will kill them. Promise.) That being said, for best taste and texture, the Taste of Home Test Kitchen recommends cooking the turkey until the dark meat has reached 170°-175°.

Pro tip: To test for doneness, insert a thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, without touching bone or fat. It should read 170°-175°. When you cook it whole, unstuffed, the breast reaches 165° roughly the same time the legs reach 170°-175°. And we do like the breast at 165° best. Learn more about food safe cooking temperatures.

Why can't I just cook it until it's done?

Well, it's not that simple. A little more science here, so bear with me. Stuffing, by nature, is a soft, porous substance. That's what we love about it. But the pores will soak up all the raw turkey juices inside the turkey, so if you don't cook it to the safe temp of 165°, it's bad news.

The trouble is that you can't get stuffing to 165° without overcooking the meat. If you think about a stuffed whole turkey roasting in the oven, the breast meat and dark meat (on the outside of the bird) get the most exposure to heat. Because stuffing is enclosed deep within the bird, it receives the least amount of heat and therefore cooks the slowest. By the time your stuffing reaches 165°, your white meat and dark meat will be at about 180° or 185°—way past their ideal doneness temp. And cooking meat past its doneness temp = dry meat. Beware of these common turkey myths that could ruin your Thanksgiving.

But stuffing cooked separately doesn't taste as good

I know. I get it. Stuffing that's cooked inside a bird tastes great because it absorbs the delicious juices from the roasted turkey. Good news: You can capture the traditional flavor without the risk by following these steps:

  • Make your favorite non-stuffed turkey recipe a few months before you need your stuffing. Be sure to save the carcass!
  • Use the leftover turkey carcass to make homemade turkey stock. Freeze it. (Check out our recipe for homemade turkey stock.)
  • On Thanksgiving Day, use the stock in place of the broth called for in your favorite dressing recipe.

  • It will taste just like it cooked inside the bird. But no bacteria! Yay!

    Yeah, but I don't want to break tradition

    If your family demands it, I understand. I don't want to get you banned from anyone's Christmas lists. If you must, go ahead and stuff it. Just prepare the dressing as indicated above, and stuff the cooked turkey after the meat tests done, while it rests. This way, it will soak up more juices at a safe temp. And no one will ever know. Next, watch out for these other common Thanksgiving mistakes you'll probably make this year.