Turkey safety for the holidays

Planning for the holidays can be stressful.  Properly preparing your turkey doesn’t have to be one of them.  Keep these tips in mind to keep your turkey preparation stress-free this holiday season.

So how big does your bird need to be?  Most sources say to plan for one to one and a half pounds of turkey per person.  Once you have selected the right size bird, it is important to keep it frozen or refrigerated until you are ready to cook it.  When starting with a fresh (refrigerated) turkey, buy it only one to two days before you are ready to cook it.  If starting with a frozen bird, keep it frozen until you are ready to thaw it.

There are three safe ways to thaw your turkey according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.  You can thaw the bird in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.  When thawing in the refrigerator, be sure to give yourself enough thawing time, especially for large birds.  It usually takes longer to thaw then you estimate for if you don’t check the chart below or the one on your package a week ahead of time.  A completely thawed turkey should only remain in the refrigerator for one to two days.

Turkey Thawing Chart

Turkey Size In the Refrigerator
(Approximately 24 hours
for every 4-5 lbs.)
In Cold Water
(Approximately 30
minutes per lb.)
4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days 10 to 12 hours

Turkey thawing chart from https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/turkeythawingchart.html.

If you are using the cold water method to thaw your turkey, make sure water will not be able to leak through the packaging/wrapping.  Fully submerge the turkey in cold water.  Change the water every 30 minutes.  Once the turkey is fully thawed, cook immediately.

When using a microwave to thaw your turkey, first be sure the turkey will fit.  Refer to the microwave owner manual to learn what size turkey can fit, how many minutes per pound, and what power settings should be used for thawing.  Be sure to remove all outer wrappings and place the bird in a microwave-safe dish prior to thawing.  Once thawed, cook immediately.

Where to check turkey temperature

Turkey should be cooked to a minimal internal temperature of 165° F for safety.  Check the temperature with a food thermometer in 3 key places:

1) thickest part of the breast.

2) innermost part of wing.

3) innermost part of thigh.

Places to check the temperature on a roasted turkey.

Places to check the temperature on a roasted turkey.

When cooking turkey, it is recommended that your oven is set no lower than 325° F.  Turkey should be cooked to a minimal internal temperature of 165° F for safety, measured with a food thermometer.  You should check the temperature in three key places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh.  If the turkey has a pop-up indicator, be sure to check these three locations with a thermometer to confirm the temperature has reached 165° F.

Stuffing is best cooked outside the turkey.  The reason why is that when the turkey meat is done is not necessarily when the stuffing has reached 165° F.  If you choose to stuff your turkey, be sure to check that stuffing temperature has reached the safe cooking temperature.

Turkey Cooking Chart

Size of Turkey Unstuffed Stuffed
4 to 6 pounds (breast) 1 ½ to 2 ¼ hours Not usually applicable
6 to 8 pounds (breast) 2 ¼ to 3 ¼ hours 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours
8 to 12 pounds 2 ¾ to 3 hours 3 to 3 ½ hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 ¾ hours 3 ½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours 4 to 4 ¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 ½ to 5 hours 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours

Turkey cooking chart from https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/turkeyroastingchart.html.

Tips to keep your turkey experience safe this holiday season

  1. Give yourself enough time to thaw your bird.
  2. Don’t rinse/wash your turkey before cooking as this doesn’t remove any bacteria and could spread bacteria around on the bird.
  3. Cook the turkey to 165° F, the USDA recommended safe minimum cooking temperature for poultry.
  4. If you want stuffing, it is better to cook it separate from the turkey. It is hard to get the stuffing up to a safe cooked temperature in the turkey cavity.

For more tips and hints from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, visit https://goo.gl/iStCwR.  Tips are also available in Spanish at https://goo.gl/Ya8Ait.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension provides research-based information to help citizens of Wisconsin make informed decisions based on science.  UW-Extension extends the boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state, helping the people of Wisconsin and beyond access university resources and engage in learning, wherever they live or work.


Note: This article originally was published in the Marquette County Tribune, Waushara Argus, and/or the Berlin Journal.  This article was written by Lyssa Seefeldt, UW-Extension Agriculture Agent for Marquette County unless otherwise noted.