Bulletin #4213, Food Safety Facts: Helpful Hints When Preparing and Cooking a Turkey

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Food Safety Facts

Thanksgiving turkey

By Mahmoud El-Begearmi, Extension professor, nutrition, and food safety, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Revised by Beth Calder, Extension Food Scientist Specialist/assistant professor and assistant professor of food sciences, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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Buying the Turkey

Read the label to know what you are buying. “Young turkey” means the bird is four to six months old at slaughtering. “Turkey fryer” means the bird is under four months of age.

Toms are male turkeys. Hens are female turkeys. Toms are normally larger in size. They can weigh from 20 to over 30 pounds. Hens, on the other hand, are smaller birds. They normally weigh between 10 and 12 pounds.

Frozen or Fresh?

Fresh birds are usually of a better quality; however, if the birds were properly frozen, they will maintain good quality for a long period of time.

If you are buying a fresh bird, you should buy your turkey one or two days before cooking. This way, you insure that the fresh quality you paid for will be there when you cook the bird.

Frozen turkeys should be properly handled to insure the quality of the birds. Buy your frozen bird early to allow enough time for thawing before cooking.

For servings, assume one pound of uncooked turkey per person. However, a few extra pounds will provide enough for healthy appetites, as well as a little left over for “after holiday” snacks.

Whenever possible, avoid buying a stuffed turkey. Buy the bird and stuff it yourself, right before cooking.

Thawing the Bird

You can safely thaw a frozen turkey in three different ways: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.

Thawing in the refrigerator: The time required for thawing a turkey in the refrigerator depends on the weight of the turkey. For example, a 12-pound turkey will take up to two days to be completely thawed; a 16-pound turkey will take three days; and a 20-pound turkey will take four days. A good guideline is 24 hours/five pounds of frozen turkey.

Thawing in cold water: Put the bird in a waterproof bag. Check the original packaging material for cuts to insure that no water will get through if you are using this as your thawing bag. Allow six hours for a 12-pound turkey; nine hours for a 16-pound turkey; and 12 hours for a 20-pound turkey. Change the water every 30 minutes.

Thawing in a microwave: Frozen turkey can also be thawed in the microwave. Follow the directions of your microwave model. Use the DEFROST cycle if it is available. Normally, it takes four to seven minutes per pound to thaw a turkey. The bird should be defrosted unwrapped; use a turntable if available, or turn the turkey periodically during defrosting. Cook immediately after thawing.

Never thaw the turkey on the counter at room temperature. Thawing takes place from the outside in. At room temperature, this allows the bacteria on the surface of the bird to grow during the thawing process.

Holiday Food Safety Tips (YouTube video)

Stuffing the Bird

It is safer to cook the stuffing outside the bird. However, if you want to roast a stuffed bird, the bird should be stuffed right before cooking. You can prepare the ingredients for the stuffing and store them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook the bird. Then mix the ingredients right before stuffing the bird; do not stuff the bird and store it before cooking. Regardless of how you cook the stuffing, it should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.

Roasting the Bird

Here is a step-by-step guide to roasting your holiday turkey:

  • Place the bird breast side up, on a rack in the roasting pan. Insert a meat thermometer in the meaty part of the thigh. It will help you tell when the turkey is done.
  • Cover loosely with aluminum foil, with the shiny side in.
  • Cook at 325°F for the time shown below. It is not recommended that you start roasting on one day and complete cooking on another. You can baste your turkey during roasting using butter or drippings from the bird.
  • Uncover the bird 20 to 30 minutes before the cooking time is up. Birds are completely cooked when the internal meat temperature reaches 165°F. (If you use roasting bags, less time is needed to reach an internal temperature of 165°F; be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations according to the USDA.)
Weight of Turkey
Unstuffed Cooking Time
Stuffed Cooking Time
8 to 122 3/4 to 33 to 3 1/2
12 to 143 to 3 1/43 1/2 to 4
14 to 183 3/4 to 4 1/44 to 4 1/4
18 to 204 1/4 to 4 1/24 1/4 to 4 3/4
20 to 244 1/2 to 54 3/4 to 5 1/4

Cooking a Turkey in a Microwave Oven

Follow the directions of your own microwave oven. Usually, cooking time is about a third of the time needed in a conventional oven. Start with a HIGH temperature for 20 minutes, then MEDIUM temperature for seven to 10 minutes per pound. Use your microwave probe or food thermometer to ensure that the turkey is at least 165°F.

Serving the Bird

Whether you cook the turkey in the oven or in the microwave, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving. But do not leave the turkey at room temperature for a longer time before serving. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible—within two hours—and do not store leftovers for a long time. The quality deteriorates fast, even in the refrigerator. Enjoy your turkey and have a happy and safe holiday!

Source: Food News for Consumers, USDA FSIS. Vol. 9, No. 3, 1992; Vol. 6, No. 4, 1990.

For more information about food safety, call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1.800.535.4555 or contact your University of Maine Cooperative Extension county office.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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