Nutrition Articles

Let's Talk Turkey! Tips for a Safe Thanksgiving Meal
Whether you're a rookie Thanksgiving chef or a veteran, it's time to review food safety tips for preparing the big feast. Below are some common questions—and some answers that just might surprise you.

Is it safe to thaw a frozen turkey overnight on the kitchen counter?
No, because thawing at room temperature may promote the growth of bacteria that cause food-borne illness.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends three safe ways to thaw a frozen turkey:
  1. In the fridge. Place the frozen turkey in its original wrapper in the refrigerator (40°F or below) on a tray or pan to catch any juices that may leak. Allow about 24 hours of thawing time per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. Once thawed, the turkey can safely remain in the fridge for 1 to 2 days.

  2. Under water. Use the cold water method if you forgot to thaw the turkey or don't have room to thaw it in the refrigerator. First, make sure the turkey is securely wrapped so water can't leak through. Then, cover the turkey with cold water in a clean sink or large pot. Change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound of turkey. Cook the turkey immediately after it's thawed.

  3. In the microwave. First, check your owner's manual for the size turkey that will fit in your microwave oven, the minutes per pound, and power level to use for thawing. Remove all outside wrapping from the bird and place it on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak. Cook the turkey immediately after it's thawed.

I always wash my raw turkey, but a friend said that's not a good idea. Is that true?
Your friend is correct. For years, cooks have washed raw meat and poultry before preparing them, but it's best to skip this step for food safety reasons. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should not wash raw meat and poultry because this practice can spread bacteria from the surface of the meat or poultry to ready-to-eat foods like raw fruits and veggies, kitchen utensils and counter surfaces.

Is it okay to stuff my turkey the night before to save time on Thanksgiving morning?
It's not safe to stuff your turkey the night before because it's hard for cold air to reach the warm stuffing and bacteria could grow. In fact, the USDA cautions against stuffing the turkey and says it's safest to bake the stuffing in a casserole outside the bird for more even cooking. Whether or not you choose to stuff the turkey, use a food thermometer to make sure the internal temperature of the stuffing reaches at least 165 °F.

How do I know when the turkey is done?
A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F when measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Use this method even if your turkey has a "pop-up" temperature indicator.

The USDA provides the following estimated cooking times for unstuffed and stuffed turkeys roasted at 325 °F. Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your turkey and stuffing.

4 to 8 pounds (breast)1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds4½ to 5 hours

4 to 6 pounds (breast)Not usually applicable
6 to 8 pounds (breast)2½ to 3½ hours
8 to 12 pounds3 to 3½ hours
12 to 14 pounds3½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds4 to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds4¼ to 4¾ hours
20 to 24 pounds4¾ to 5¼ hours

How quickly should I refrigerate and use leftovers?
Refrigerate leftover turkey, stuffing and side dishes in separate covered containers as soon as possible, but always within two hours. Throw away foods left at room temperature longer than two hours.

Use refrigerated turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days and gravy within 1 to 2 days.

Click here for more Turkey Day food safety tips.