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University of Delaware food safety experts say careful attention must be paid to preparing, cooking and storing turkey before, during and after a Thanksgiving meal.
University of Delaware food safety experts say careful attention must be paid to preparing, cooking and storing turkey before, during and after a Thanksgiving meal.

Let’s talk turkey

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UD’s food science experts answer turkey food-safety questions

Editor’s note: The University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has experts in many areas, including food science, food safety and nutrition. Cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving or any other occasion comes with many challenges. To keep your main course safe and delicious, the college and Cooperative Extension experts addressed key issues and burning questions for this Thursday’s chefs.

All poultry, including turkey, is highly perishable. To ensure a safe product, proper handling, preparation and storage are important. Buy poultry only from freezer, refrigerator or chill cases and maintain cold storage in a freezer (at 0°F) or refrigerator (≤ 40°F) until preparation. Do not store turkey in a location where the temperature cannot be closely monitored and assured.

How should I thaw a turkey?

Most food spoilage organisms and pathogens grow rapidly between 40°F and 140°F. If food is in this temperature range for more than two hours, bacteria could grow and multiply enough to cause illness.

Turkeys should not be thawed on the counter. Three suggested methods are safe for thawing turkeys. In each case, turkeys are thawed until pliable. At this point, remove the neck and giblets. Cook the neck and giblets promptly and refrigerate. 

Thawing Methods:

  1. Thaw in the refrigerator in the original wrap. Place on a tray or platter to catch drip. Allow about 24 hours of thawing time for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. Turkeys 8 to 12 pounds take about 1 to 2 days to thaw; 12 to 16 pounds take about 3 to 4 days; 16 to 20 pounds take 4 to 5 days; 20 pounds or over, take 5 to 6 days. Turkey thawed in the refrigerator can remain in the refrigerator once it’s been thawed for 1 to 2 days before cooking.

  2. Thaw in cold water. Place frozen turkey in its watertight wrap in cold water. Change water frequently to hasten thawing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends changing water every 30 minutes. As a guide, it takes about 30 minutes per pound to thaw in cold water. Cook the turkey as soon as it is thawed..

  3. Thaw in a microwave oven. Because microwave ovens vary, check the manufacturer’s instructions for the power level for defrosting and the minutes per pound for thawing. Cook the turkey as soon as it is thawed. Do not cook the whole turkey in the microwave.

To help you remember when to thaw the turkey, print a large, clear note to remind yourself. Decide on the thawing method you’ll use; put the starting day, date and time (if necessary) on the note. Put it where you’re most likely to see it when needed. Don’t take chances with your family’s and friend’s health by taking shortcuts which may allow disease-causing bacteria to grow.

How should I handle turkey?

Raw turkey and its juice can contaminate anything they touch. Be sure to handle turkey correctly to prevent the spread of harmful germs to other food and people.

  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling turkey.

  • Do not wash raw turkey to avoid spreading poultry juices and contaminating other foods, utensils, and food preparation surfaces.

  • Use separate cutting boards, plates and utensils for raw turkey and other foods.

  • Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, countertops, and sinks with hot soapy water after preparing raw turkey and before you prepare the next food item.

How long must I roast turkeys and at what temperature?

Heat oven to at least 325°F. Place the completely thawed turkey breast-side up in a shallow roasting pan approximately 2 to 2.5 inches deep. Cooking times vary depending on the weight of the turkey and whether or not it is stuffed. It’s safest to cook stuffing in a casserole dish instead of inside the turkey to assure the stuffing is thoroughly cooked. If cooking stuffing in the turkey, put the stuffing in the turkey just before cooking.

Use a food thermometer to make sure the turkey and the center of the stuffing reach 165°F. Pathogens can survive in meat and stuffing that has not reached 165°F. Do not rely on food appearance or pop-up timers to determine doneness for safety. To measure the temperature, insert a thermometer in the center of the inner thigh; the thermometer should not touch bone. Turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165°F. If the bird is stuffed, check the stuffing temperature by placing the thermometer in the center of the stuffing and assuring it registers at least 165°F. 

If turkey browns early during roasting, cover breast and drumsticks lightly with aluminum foil. For quality and ease of carving, allow the turkey to stand about 20 minutes after cooking before removing stuffing and carving meat.

Timetable for roasting fresh or thawed turkey or turkey parts

These times are approximate (for oven temperature at 325°F) and should always be evaluated by checking the temperature of meat and stuffing.. 

Weight (pounds)

Unstuffed (hours)

Stuffed (hours)

4 to 6 (breasts)

1.5 to 2.25

Not applicable

6 to 8 (breasts)

2.25 to 3.25

Not applicable

8 to 12 (whole bird)

2.75 to 3

3 to 3.5

12 to 14 (whole bird)

3 to 3.75

3.5 to 4

14 to 18 (whole bird)

3.75 to 4.5

4 to 4.25

18 to 20 (whole bird)

4.25 to 4.5

4.25 to 4.75

20 to 24 (whole bird)

4.5 to 5

4.75 to 5.25

Additional methods for cooking turkey include oven cooking bags, microwave ovens (for pieces only), outdoor grills and rotisserie. Follow directions provided by the manufacturer. Brown paper bags should not be used because of sanitary reasons and risk of fire. For more information on how to cook turkey safely by these alternate methods, visit https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/poultry/turkey-alternate-routes-table

After the turkey has been roasted, how do I keep the meat safe?

If turkey has been stuffed, remove all stuffing, refrigerate stuffing within two hours and use within 1 to 2 days. If gravy was made, store it separately in the refrigerator and use within 1 to 2 days. Reheat gravy or poultry broth to boiling before serving.

After cooking the turkey, remove meat from bones and refrigerate within two hours of cooking. Store meat in shallow containers in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Cut larger pieces of meat into smaller pieces for more rapid cooling. Use within 3 to 4 days and reheat to at least 165°F before eating or serving. Turkey meat may be held for a longer time if frozen. Freezer temperature should not exceed 0°F for safety.  

Can I partially roast the turkey one day, then finish cooking it the next day?

No. Roast the turkey completely in one cooking session to avoid the turkey being kept additional time at temperatures favorable for bacterial growth.

Can a turkey be roasted at a low temperature all night?

This, too, is a dangerous practice. The cooking temperature would not entirely allow for destruction of harmful bacteria and might well result in increased growth of microorganisms.

Is it all right to stuff the turkey the night before, then roast it the next morning?

This is not a safe practice. For optimal safety, cook stuffing separately outside of the bird. If stuffing the bird cavity, do so just before roasting. Fill the body cavity and base of neck lightly to allow room for heat to penetrate more readily.

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