Thanksgiving Turkey Basics

Safe Defrosting

Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to defrost, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.

A package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit – at a temperature when foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly.

Immediately after returning home from the grocery store with your frozen turkey, store it in the freezer or refrigerator, if you want to begin defrosting it. There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave.

Refrigerator Thawing 
When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, there are several variables to take into account:

  • Plan ahead. Allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Some areas of a refrigerator may keep the food colder than others. A turkey placed in the coldest part will require longer defrosting time.
Refrigerator Thawing Times
(Whole Turkey)
4 – 12 pounds 1 to 3 days
12 – 16 pounds 3 to 4 days
16 – 20 pounds 4 to 5 days
20 – 24 pounds 5 to 6 days

Cold Water Thawing
Allow 30 minutes per pound.  Be sure the turkey is in a leak proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the surrounding environment could be introduced into the food.

Immerse the turkey in cold tap water. Check the water frequently to be sure it stays cold. Change the water every 30 minutes, until the turkey is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times
(Whole Turkey)
4 – 12 pounds 2 to 6 hours
12 – 16 pounds 6 to 8 hours
16 – 20 pounds 8 to 10 hours
20 – 24 pounds 10 to 12 hours

A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.

Microwave Thawing
Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instructions when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present would not have been destroyed.

After cooking, meat from a turkey thawed in the microwave can be refrozen.

Safe Cooking

Recommended cooking techniques must be followed when cooking your turkey. Timing is not everything. You should use a meat thermometer to ensure a sufficient internal temperature has been reached to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness, as well as to prevent overcooking.

There are many variables that can affect the roasting time of the whole turkey:

  • A partially frozen bird requires longer cooking.
  • Dark roasting pans cook faster than shiny metals.
  • The depth and size of the pan can reduce heat circulation to all areas of the bird.
  • The use of a foil tent for the entire time can slow cooking.
  • Use of the roasting pan’s lid speeds cooking.
  • An oven cooking bag can accelerate cooking time.
  • A stuffed bird takes longer to cook.
  • Oven may heat food unevenly.
  • Calibration of the oven’s thermostat may be inaccurate.
  • The rack position can have an effect on even cooking and heat circulation.
  • A turkey or its pan may be too large for the oven, thus blocking heat circulation.

Roasting Instructions: For Safety and Doneness

  1. Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Preheating is not necessary.
  2. Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Times are based on fresh or completely thawed frozen birds at a refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
  3. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 – 2 ½ inches deep.  
    Optional Steps:

    • Tuck wings back under shoulders of bird.
    • Add ½ cup water to the bottom of the pan.
    • In the beginning, a tent of aluminum foil may be placed loosely over the breast of the turkey for the first 1 – 1 ½ hours, then removed for browning. Or, a tent of foil may be placed over the turkey after the turkey has reached the desired golden brown.
  4. If a meat thermometer is not available, cook stuffing in a casserole. Mix ingredients just before stuffing a turkey. Stuff loosely. Additional time is required for the turkey and stuffing to reach a safe internal temperature (see chart below).
  5. For safety and doneness, the internal temperature should be checked with a meat thermometer. The temperature must reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the thigh of a whole turkey (center of the stuffing should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit) before removing it from the oven. Cook a turkey breast to 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. Juices should be clear. In the absence of a meat thermometer, pierce an unstuffed turkey with a fork in several places; juices should be clear with no trace of pink.
  7. For quality, let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving. This allows the juices to set and the turkey will carve more easily
Approximate Cooking Times
Unstuffed Turkey
4 – 6 lb breast 1 ½ – 2 ¼ hours
6 – 8 lb breast 2 ¼ – 3 ¼ hours
8 – 12 lbs 2 ¾ – 3 hours
12 – 14 lbs 3 – 3 ¾ hours
14 – 18 lbs 3 ¾ – 4 ¼ hours
18 – 20 lbs 4 ¼ – 4 ½ hours
20 – 24 lbs 4 ½ – 5 hours
Stuffed Turkey
8 – 12 lbs 3 – 3 ½ hours
12 – 14 lbs 3 ½  – 4 hours
14 – 18 lbs 4 – 4 ¼ hours
18 – 20 lbs 4 ¼  – 4 ¾ hours
20 – 24 lbs 4 ¾  – 5 ¼  hours

Stuffing Safely

If stuffing a turkey, use a meat thermometer. Cooking a home stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Bacteria can survive in stuffing which has not reached the safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly resulting in foodborne illness. Even if the turkey itself has reached the proper internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature in all parts of the stuffing sufficient to destroy foodborne bacteria.

If stuffing does not reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit when the turkey itself is done to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, further cooking will be required. During the added cooking necessary to bring the stuffing up to a safe temperature, the meat may become overcooked.

For optimum safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately.

For stuffing cooked in a turkey or in a casserole, some basic rules should be followed. Care must be taken at the following critical points during preparation, cooking and handling.

  1. Handling Raw Turkeys Safely: Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the turkey home and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Cook a fresh turkey within 2 days or freeze it. Defrost frozen turkeys in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours per 5 pounds. For thawing in cold water, allow about 30 minutes per pound. The water should be changed every 30 minutes. A turkey may be thawed in the microwave following the oven manufacturer’s instructions, but must be cooked immediately after thawing.
  2. Prepare Stuffing Safely: Mix stuffing just before it goes into the turkey. The wet and dry ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and chilled. Mix ingredients just before placing the stuffing inside the turkey or into a casserole.
  3. Stuffing Properly:  The turkey should be stuffed loosely — about ¾ cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
  4. Use a Thermometer: The stuffed turkey should be placed immediately in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Even when using a “pop-up” temperature indicator, a conventional meat thermometer must be used to test in several places, including the innermost part of the thigh. Juices should run clear. Cook until the center of the stuffing inside the turkey or in a casserole reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Let bird stand for 20 minutes before removing all stuffing and carving.
  5. Storing Leftovers: Within 2 hours of cooking, cut turkey off the bones. Refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 4 days.

Handling Cooked Dinners

Take-out Dinners Hot from the Oven
If eating within 2 hours…pick up the food HOT and keep it HOT. Keeping foods warm is not enough. Harmful bacteria multiply fastest between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Set oven temperature high enough to keep the turkey at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above (use a meat thermometer). Stuffing and side dishes must also stay HOT. Covering with foil will help keep the food moist.

If eating much later…it’s not a good idea to try and keep foods hot longer than 2 hours. They will be safer and taste better if you:

  • Remove all stuffing from the turkey cavity immediately and refrigerate.
  • Cut turkey off the bone and refrigerate. Slice breast meat; legs and wings may be left whole.
  • Refrigerate potatoes, gravy and vegetables, too, in shallow containers.

If reheating…reheat thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit until hot and steaming. Bring gravy to a rolling boil. In the microwave oven, cover food and rotate dish so it heats evenly. Follow the microwave manufacturer’s instructions. Inadequate heating in the microwave or conventional oven can contribute to foodborne illness.

Cooked and Refrigerated
Keep cold foods COLD. Refrigerate cold foods as soon as you get home (always within 2 hours). Serve your meal within 1 to 2 days.

Reheating a whole turkey is NOT recommended. If you plan to reheat a turkey, cut the meat off the bone. Slice breast meat. Refrigerate in shallow containers.

Handling Leftovers
Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly in shallow containers. It is safe to freeze leftover turkey and trimmings—even if you purchased them frozen. Wrap tightly for best quality.

Cooked Frozen Turkey: Side Dishes
Is USDA inspection seal visible? This seal on the label tells you the turkey was prepared in a USDA-inspected plant. Read and follow package directions for thawing, reheating and storing.

No Handling Instructions on Label? Then follow these steps:

  • Thaw the wrapped, cooked frozen turkey on a tray in the refrigerator. Allow about a day for every 5 pounds. Small packages such as stuffing, gravy, or potatoes will thaw in less time. Side dishes can go from freezer to oven.
  • Once the cooked turkey thaws, reheat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and eat it within 3 to 4 days (stuffing and gravy in 1 to 2 days).
  • To reheat turkey, cut the meat off the bones. Slice breast meat. Legs and wings may be left whole.

Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys.  If not handled properly, any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiple very quickly.

Storage of Leftovers

(40 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly below)
Cooked turkey 3 to 4 days
Stuffing and gravy 1 to 2 days
Other cooked dishes 3 to 4 days
Freezer (0 degrees Fahrenheit or below)
Turkey slices/pieces, plain 4 months
Turkey covered with broth or gravy 6 months
Cooked poultry dishes 4 to 6 months
Stuffing and gravy 1 month

(Foods frozen longer remain safe but may become drier and lose flavor.)

Reference: Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA.

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