Depending on your ethnicity or where you live, the Christmas dinner can take on a fusion and variety of foods and tastes. Most tables though will be lined with a roast turkey in the middle of the grand spread of many side dishes.
However, since people only cook a turkey once or twice a year, they forget what are the safe procedures in the preparation and cooking a turkey to avoid food illness.
Food safety professionals warn that one wrong move with the holiday turkey can cause food illness. If not handled correctly, harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly during any stage: defrosting, preparing, cooking and storing.
A. Defrosting (Thawing) a Frozen Turkey Safely
Thawing turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature. The bacteria “danger zone” is between 40 °F and 140 °F — within which foodborne bacteria multiplies rapidly.
A frozen turkey 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 at an unsafe temperature – between 40 °F and 140 °F.
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There are three safe methods to thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.
1. Refrigerator Thawing
When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator:
- Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below.
- Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.
Refrigerator Thawing Times – Whole turkey:
- 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
- 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days
A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality.
2. Cold Water Thawing
Allow about 30 minutes per pound. First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product.
Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.
Cold Water Thawing Times
- 4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
- 12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
- 16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
- 20 to 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.
3. Microwave Thawing
Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instruction 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 wouldn’t have been destroyed. A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately.
B. Preparing a Turkey
After the turkey has thawed properly, next is the preparation for cooking. Properly washing hands and cleaning utensils and surfaces – before and after – is extremely important.
Washing a Raw Turkey Spreads Bacteria
Many people think that washing a turkey will remove the bacteria and make it safe. According to a survey conducted by the FDA, 68% of people wash a turkey before cooking it. Only cooking the turkey thoroughly to 165 °F kills any bacteria that might be present.
It is impossible to wash bacteria off the bird and juices that splash during washing can transfer bacteria onto the surfaces of your kitchen, other foods and utensils. This is called cross-contamination, which can make you and your guests very sick.
This animation from New Mexico State University demonstrates the danger of spreading the bacteria when washing a turkey.
Hand Washing – Preventing Cross Contamination
Washing your hands before and after handling your turkey and its packaging is crucial to avoid spreading harmful bacteria. Be sure to wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds. This simple, but important step can help keep you and your guests safe from foodborne illness.
Likewise, if the raw turkey or its juices come in contact with kitchen surfaces, wash the counter tops and sinks with hot, soapy water. For extra protection, surfaces may be sanitized with a solution of 1 tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Be sure to let those areas dry thoroughly.
C. Cooking the Turkey Safely
The only way to destroy bacteria on your turkey is to cook it to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Some chefs prefer to cook to a higher temperature for flavor and texture. Check the temperature by inserting a food thermometer into:
- the thickest part of the breast;
- the innermost part of the wing; and
- the innermost part of the thigh.
Note: Turkey pop-up timers only check the internal temperature in one area and are not recommended.
Is it safe to cook the stuffing inside a turkey?
The USDA recommends that the entire turkey is cooked to 165 °F – including the stuffing! If the stuffing doesn’t reach 165 °F, the bacteria won’t be killed off and could cause foodborne illness. Cooking stuffing inside the turkey to 165 °F often means overcooking the bird – so it’s best to cook the stuffing separate.
D. Store Leftovers Safely
Portion the turkey and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within two hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will only last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze.
For best quality, use your leftover turkey from the freezer within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.
Additional Turkey Food Safety Resources
- Let’s Talk Turkey Brochure (PDF)
- USDA – Thanksgiving Toolkit to Prevent Foodborne Illness
- Poultry Preparation – USDA
- Let’s Talk Turkey: A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey – USDA
- Turkey Basics: Handling Cooked Dinners & Leftovers – USDA
- Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking – USDA, (Spanish language Turkey Basics)
- CDC Foodborne Illness
- CDC Food Safety
- Let’s Talk Turkey Brochure (PDF)