All About the Turkey

— Written By and last updated by Brittany Miller
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Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. I enjoy cooking my family’s favorite foods and sitting around the table reflecting on the many things we have to be thankful for.

When we think of Thanksgiving food, the turkey is the star of the table. There are several delicious ways to cook a turkey, however, critical steps occur during the handling and preparation prior to cooking. If you are cooking a turkey, you will have a few decisions to make such as: fresh or frozen, size, and product. If you buy a fresh turkey, purchase it 1-2 days before you plan to cook it. A frozen turkey can be purchased anytime, given you have freezer storage space. If you purchase a frozen turkey, you will need to allow adequate thawing time based on turkey weight. Determining your turkey size is based on the turkey product you purchase and the number of people you are serving. If you purchase a whole bird, allow 1 pound per person; boneless breast of turkey, allow ½ pound per person; and breast of turkey, allow ¾ pound per person.

There are several ways to safely defrost a turkey, however, allowing it, or any food, to thaw at room temperature is not safe. The recommended methods of thawing include in the refrigerator or in cold water. The refrigerator method is the most recommended. Although less labor intensive, it does take more time. Allow a frozen turkey 24 hours to thaw for every 4-5 pounds. For example, if your turkey weighs 15 pounds, you will need to allow approximately three days for thawing. To begin the thawing process in the refrigerator, make sure to: verify your refrigerator is set to 41°F or lower; keep the turkey in the original packaging and place in a container to catch any drippings; and store preferably on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The use of a container and placing the turkey on the bottom shelf will help reduce the risk of cross-contamination from the turkey to other food items in the refrigerator. Once thawed, the turkey can remain refrigerated 1-2 days.

The cold-water process is more labor intensive, but takes less time. This method consists of completely submerging the frozen turkey, breast side down in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound of turkey for this method and cook immediately after thawing.

Some additional tips for safely preparing your turkey:

  • Wash, rinse, and sanitize all food surfaces before and after use.
  • Resist the urge to wash the turkey, or any poultry, including chicken and duck. Rinsing the poultry will not eliminate bacteria and will increase your risk of contamination to your sink and other surfaces.
  • Once the turkey has thawed, or if you bought fresh, you are now ready to season and cook it. If you do not already own one, invest in a food thermometer, preferably digital, as thermometers are critical to food safety. Do not rely on the doneness indicator buttons on many turkeys; verify with a thermometer. In addition to ensuring your food is not under or over-cooked, it is the only reliable method in determining food has been cooked to an internal temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria.
  • All poultry, including chicken, duck, and turkey, must reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F instantaneously. Temperatures should be taken in the thickest part of the breast, innermost part of the wing, and innermost part of the thigh.
  • Transfer leftovers into refrigeration as quickly as possible, or within 2 hours of cooking. Have food grade containers and/or plastic bags ready to pack.

Remember the key to a great holiday meal is to plan, shop early, prep as much as you can beforehand, and most importantly enjoy your time with family and friends.

NC State University Cooperative Extension–Food Safety Education
University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension–Food Safety Education