Count-Down to a Food-Safe Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is just over two weeks away, and it’s time to get ready. The USDA has provided answers to common questions to help your holiday run smoothly.

Q: How long does it take to thaw a turkey?

A: The time it takes to thaw a turkey depends on which of these three thawing methods you choose:

  • Refrigerator thaw method (recommended): plan on at least 24 hours for every five pounds.
  • Cold-water bath method: at least 30 minutes per pound.
  • Microwave method: follow instructions in the owner’s manual.

The turkey should not be thawed on the counter or in hot water. Detailed information is available to help you plan this step of the holiday meal.

Q: Should I wash my turkey?

A: No. Washing or rinsing any meat or poultry is not recommended, and actually increases the risk you will cross-contaminate germs to other foods you’re preparing. A recent USDA study showed that  60% of households had bacteria in the sink after washing and rinsing poultry. And in 14% of households those bacteria were still there even after the sink had been cleaned.  Also in the study, 26% of households transferred bacteria from raw poultry to lettuce that was being prepared for a salad.

While you shouldn’t wash meat or poultry, you should clean your kitchen after preparing raw meats. Cleaning and sanitizing is a two-step process. To clean, rub down surfaces including the sink, cutting boards, and counter tops with soap and hot water and then sanitize them with a cleaning solution to remove any residual germs you cannot see. An effective homemade sanitizing solution is prepared from  of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water or one teaspoon per quart. Let air dry.  Alternately, a home dishwasher will heat the water hot enough to both clean and sanitize utensils and cutting boards.

Q: Should I stuff my turkey?

A: USDA does not recommend stuffing a turkey for food safety reasons. When stuffed, it takes a longer time to cook the turkey, and you must make sure the innermost part of the stuffing has also reached 165 degrees F. This can be challenging with large birds.

Q: Should I roast my turkey breast side up or down?

A: USDA recommends cooking a whole turkey breast side up in the oven. This will ensure that the large breast muscle cooks quickly and uniformly.

Q: Is it safe to cook a turkey in an oven bag?

A: Oven cooking bags are safe and can be an effective way to speed up the cooking process. For whole, unstuffed turkeys in oven cooking bags, cook at 350 degrees F for the following approximate times:

  • 8-12 lb. turkey: 1 1/2 to 2 hours
  • 12 to 16 lb. turkey: 2 to 2 1/2 hours
  • 16-20 lb. turkey: 2 1/2 to 3 hours
  • 20-24 lb. turkey: 3 to 3 1/2 hours

Refer to the manufacturer-provided instructions on the oven bags for specific timetables. If you choose to stuff your turkey, add 30 minutes to the times.

Q: How do you cook a turkey in an electric roaster oven?

A: An electric roaster can free up oven space for baking holiday pies and side dishes. And generally, the cooking time and oven temperature setting are the same as for conventional cooking. Preheat the oven to at least 325 degrees F. Place the turkey on the roaster oven rack or other meat rack so the turkey is raised out of the juices that collect in the bottom of the oven liner, resulting in a more typical cooked bird. Leave the lid on throughout cooking, removing it as little as possible to avoid slowing the cooking process. Cooking bags can be used in the roaster oven if the bag does not touch the sides, bottom, or lid.

Q: Is it safe to cook a turkey overnight at a low temperature?

A: It is not safe to cook any poultry in an oven set lower than 325 degrees F. At lower temperatures, poultry stays in the Danger Zone (between 40 to 140 degrees F) for too long.

Q: When do I know my turkey or turkey breast is ready?

A: The turkey is ready when it reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in 3 places, the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing. If stuffed, make sure the innermost part of the stuffing also reaches 165 degrees F before you stop cooking the turkey.

If you have any additional questions, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert or chat live at from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday. If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Central Time.

The Butterball Hotline is also available on Thanksgiving from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 800-288-8372.  And via text, live chat and Amazon’s Alexa too!