Here's what a food safety expert says and how our test kitchen team solves the problem.

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Mashed potatoes aside, stuffing might very well be one of the most beloved side dishes in a classic Thanksgiving spread. But with a name like "stuffing," shouldn't you stuff it in a turkey instead of serving it on the side? Not necessarily. Sure, a stuffed turkey might look wonderfully festive coming out of the oven, but it could pose a health risk to your hungry guests. Ahead, learn why stuffing a turkey can be unsafe, plus ways to do it properly.

Why Do We Stuff Turkey?

Before diving into the dos and don'ts of stuffing turkey, it's worth acknowledging why people do it in the first place. According to Kimberly Baker, PhD, RD, LD, director of the food systems and safety program team at Clemson University Extension Service, one of the most common reasons relates to flavor. As the turkey cooks, its juices drip onto the stuffing, infusing the bread and vegetables with extra flavor. Some people also think the practice yields a moister stuffing, while others "do it to save space in the oven," notes Baker. After all, when you've got dishes like green bean casserole and pumpkin pie on the menu, every bit of oven space is prime real estate.

Is It a Good Idea?

Despite the benefits of stuffing a turkey, it's not a safe practice, says Baker. That's because the turkey and stuffing might cook at different rates, often leaving the stuffing uncooked and unsafe to eat by the time the turkey is ready. Both the turkey and stuffing need to reach a minimal internal temperature of 165°F in order for harmful pathogens in the stuffing to be killed, explains Baker. However, if the turkey reaches the required 165°F before the stuffing, you'll be left with "a turkey cooked to perfection and undercooked stuffing," she says. In other words, the stuffing will still contain those illness-causing pathogens.

As the stuffing remains under 165°F, the pathogens will continue to multiply and grow. Specifically, they grow best between 40 to 135°F, a temperature range known as the temperature danger zone. Pathogens grow even faster at the higher end of the zone, which is 70 to 135°F, says Baker. What's more, it doesn't take a lot of microorganisms to cause foodborne illness. This is especially true for individuals with a compromised immune system (i.e., young children, elderly, pregnant people, and those with chronic illness). In this case, "consuming just one pathogen could cause [sickness]," says Baker. And while there's also the option of cooking a stuffed turkey long enough to get the stuffing to 165°F, this approach will yield a dry and overcooked turkey.

Bottom line? To protect you and your guests from foodborne illness, avoid stuffing the turkey. Instead, cook the stuffing and turkey separately, which offers myriad benefits beyond food safety. As Baker points out, a stuffing made with vegetable broth (and cooked outside of a turkey) will be appropriate for vegetarian guests. Baking stuffing separately also makes it easier to adjust the moisture and flavor based on the diner's preferences. Better yet, baking stuffing on its own creates a crisp, golden-brown crust, notes Greg Lofts, our deputy food editor. "Sure, you're missing out on some of the flavor the turkey imparts when you stuff the bird. But if you're starting with a flavorful stock to make the dressing, it will still have plenty of turkey flavor," he says. Riley Wofford, our assistant food editor agrees: "When stuffing is inside of a turkey, it gets so wet and mushy," she notes. "[But] if you make a flavorful stock from the turkey neck and giblets, you can make your stuffing moist and flavorful without [it turning into] mush."

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How to Safely Stuff a Turkey

If you're not ready to skip stuffing the turkey, follow these tips to do it safely. "First, use only cooked ingredients in the stuffing. If eggs are needed, use pasteurized eggs," suggests Baker. "Second, the stuffing should be added immediately before cooking [the turkey]." Avoid overstuffing the neck and body cavities and use about three-quarters cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. "For example, no more than 15 cups of stuffing should be used in a 20-pound bird," explains Baker. Third, "put the stuffed turkey immediately in a preheated oven set no lower than 325°F [and] always check the stuffing temperature to make sure it's done," recommends Baker." Even if the turkey has reached 165°F in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing might not have reached 165°F in the center," she adds. It's crucial that all parts of the stuffing are cooked to 165°F. Finally, remove the stuffing before carving—and, for an extra measure of safety, finish the stuffing in a dish in the oven while the turkey is resting, says Sarah Carey, our editorial director of food and entertaining.

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