Keep food safety in mind when preparing your holiday turkey

Thanksgiving Turkey dinnerUW-Extension offers tips

Contact: Barbara Ingham, (608)263-7383,

A delectable roast turkey is often the centerpiece of the family Thanksgiving dinner. Keeping in mind some food safety tips while preparing your holiday bird will help ensure it is not only delicious, but also free of foodborne bacteria that may cause illness, according to Barbara Ingham, food science specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

To decide how large a turkey to buy, allow for one pound per person, Ingham says. A fresh turkey should be purchased only one to two days before it will be cooked and should be stored on a refrigerator’s bottom shelf in a pan or tray, which will catch any juices that may drip onto surrounding foods.

A frozen turkey can be safely roasted without thawing it. However, Ingham notes that cooking a turkey from the frozen state requires extra time for cooking. “Plan for about 50 percent more time,” she says.

To roast a turkey that starts off frozen, start by removing the wrapping and any gravy packet. Set the still-frozen bird in a pan on a rack in an oven pre-heated to at least 325 degrees Fahrenheit. After the bird has thawed sufficiently in the oven (which may take several hours) take the turkey from the oven and remove the giblets and neck from inside the body cavity. The remaining time required for cooking will depend on the size of the bird. Four-and-a-half to five hours will be needed to cook a 12- to 13-pound frozen turkey from the frozen state; more time is needed for larger birds.

Careful planning will allow you to thaw a frozen turkey prior to cooking. Turkeys can be safelty thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave oven.

Thawing a turkey

In the refrigerator (40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder): The turkey should be kept in its original wrapper and set on a tray or pan to catch dripping liquid as it thaws in a refrigerator. Once it is completely thawed, the turkey may be stored in the refrigerator one to two more days before it must be cooked. Four to five days are needed to thaw an average 20-pound turkey in the refrigerator.

In cold water: Ideally, the turkey is kept in its original wrapping, which should be checked to ensure it is secure so water cannot leak into the package. The turkey should be completely submerged in cold water, which should be changed every 30 minutes as it gradually warms. Turkeys thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately after thawing. They should not be refrigerated or refrozen.

Turkey Thawing Guidelines
Weight in Pounds Days to Thaw
in Refrigerator
Hours to Thaw
in Cold Water
4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 2 to 6
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 6 to 8
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 8 to 10
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 10 to 12

In the microwave oven: The microwave’s owner’s manual should state the size of the largest turkey that will fit inside the appliance, the required minutes per pound for defrosting and the power level to use. All outside wrapping should be removed and the turkey should be placed on a microwave-safe dish to catch juices that may leak. Turkey thawed by microwave should be cooked immediately and not be refrozen or refrigerated.

Roasting the turkey

Turkeys—or other meat—should not be rinsed for cooking; this practice only spreads germs. Paper towels should be used to gently remove pin feathers or blood. Direct contact with a raw bird or its juices can spread bacteria and foodborne illness if the cook then touches other surfaces and food.

The oven’s temperature should be no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. The turkey should be placed on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.

Care must be taken when cooking a stuffed turkey. Stuffing heats slower than the turkey meat and precautions should be taken to avoid having the bird in the “danger zone” where harmful bacteria can grow. To safely prepare a stuffed turkey, you can still prepare ingredients ahead of time as long as you keep wet and dry ingredients separate.

All wet ingredients (butter or margarine, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.) should be chilled and then mixed with the dry ingredients just before the neck and body cavities are loosely filled. The turkey should then be cooked immediately. A food thermometer should be used to make sure that both the center of the stuffing and the turkey reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

To kill bacteria that could make people sick, the cook should always wash with soap and water her or his hands, utensils, the sink and anything else that comes in contact with raw turkey and its juices.

If a roasting pan does not have a lid, a tent of heavy-duty aluminum foil can be placed over the turkey for the first 1 to 1.5 hours. This cover allows for maximum heat circulation, keeps the turkey moist and reduces oven splatter. To prevent over-browning, fresh foil may be placed over the turkey after it reaches the desired color.

A whole roast turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer. The internal temperature should be checked at the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For safety’s sake, do not rely on the turkey’s pop-up doneness indicator.

Time Needed to Cook a Turkey
Weight in Pounds Hours to Cook Unstuffed Thawed Turkey Hours to Cook Stuffed Thawed Turkey Hours to Cook Frozen Unstuffed Turke
8 to 12 2.75 to 3 3 to 3.5
12 to 14 3 to 3.75 3.5 to 4 6.5 to 8
14 to 18 3.75 to 4.25 4 to 4.25
18 to 20 4.25 to 4.5 4.25 to 4.75
20 to 24 4.5 to 5 4.75 to 5.25

For better taste and easier carving, the roast turkey should stand and rest for 20 minutes before being carved to allow juices to set. All stuffing should be removed from the turkey cavities before carving.

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner and other holiday meals with their many dishes and high expectations isn’t always easy, and can be stressful, says Ingham. She suggests visiting for more information on how to plan the Thanksgiving meal and prepare the turkey. Questions also can be directed in English and Spanish to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services’ “Ask Karen” service.

To learn more about food safety, contact your local UW-Extension office.


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