Let’s Talk Turkey

The holidays are upon us and we all know what that means. Family, friends, parties and turkey with all the trimmings. Most people cook turkey only once a year or so and while it is a simple meal, it needs to be prepared correctly. Questions like ‘how much time do I need to defrost a turkey’ and ‘how can I tell when my turkey is done’ are among the most commonly asked.

Fresh or Frozen?

Many people are partial to the fresh turkey, but for most of us the frozen variety works just fine. Cooking is different though, so whether you choose fresh or frozen, make sure to cook it properly. Whether you choose fresh or frozen, follow these tips to be sure your holiday meal goes off without a hitch.

Fresh Turkeys

Allow one pound of meat per person. Be sure to buy your bird no more than 2 days before you plan to cook it. Your turkey needs to be kept refrigerated until it is ready to be stuffed and cooked. Keep a pan underneath it to collect any juices that may leak through the packaging. Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys. If the turkey and dressing were not handled properly, any harmful bacteria in the stuffing will multiply very quickly.

Frozen Turkeys

Allow one pound of meat per person. While a turkey can be kept in the freezer indefinitely, it is best to use it within one year of purchase. Be sure your turkey stays frozen until you are ready to cook it. Remember that it takes a long time to thaw a turkey! There are three ways to thaw your turkey safely – in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave oven.

In the Refrigerator (40 degrees or below)

Allow approximately 24 hours for every four to five pounds.

4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days

12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days

16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days

20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days.

Remember to keep your turkey in its original wrapper. A pan placed under the bird will collect any drippings. Once your turkey is thawed, it can safely remain in the refrigerator for one to 2 days, and can be safely refrozen if necessary.

In Cold Water

Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound

4 to 12 pounds 2 to 6 hours

12 to 16 pounds 6 to 8 hours

16 to 20 pounds 8 to 10 hours

20 to 24 pounds 10 to 12 hours

Your turkey should be wrapped securely to prevent water from leaking through the wrapper. Submerge the turkey completely in the cold water, and change water ever 30 minutes. Once the bird is thawed, it must be cooked immediately. It is NOT safe to refreeze a turkey that has been thawed in cold water.

In the Microwave Oven

All microwaves are different! To thaw your turkey safely, it is necessary to check your owners manual for the size of turkey that will fit in your oven and the amount of time it will take per pound and the power level required to thaw it.

• Remove all outside wrapping

• Place in a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak

• Cook your turkey immediately! It is not safe to refrigerate or refreeze a turkey thawed in the microwave.

Remember to remove the giblets from your thawed turkey and cook them separately.

Frozen Pre-Stuffed Turkeys

Frozen, pre-stuffed turkeys that have been inspected by the USDA or your state are perfectly safe. Be sure that you DO NOT thaw these turkeys. They should be cooked from their frozen state. Follow the package directions proper handling and cooking.

Allow 1 ¼ pounds of frozen pre-stuffed turkey per person.

Roasting Your Turkey

Your oven should be set at no less than 325 degrees F. For best results and the most even cooking, turkey and stuffing should be cooked separately. Turkey can also be stuffed prior to cooking. Stuffing should be mixed just prior to roasting. If stuffing is made ahead of time, keep wet and dry ingredients separate until just before cooking. Fill the cavities of the turkey loosely. Cook turkey IMMEDIATELY after stuffing. The center temperature of the stuffing should be 165 degrees F.

A whole turkey should be cooked to 180 degrees F. A food thermometer is the best way to check for doneness. Insert the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the inner thigh without touching the bone.

A turkey breast should be cooked to 170 degrees F. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat to ensure an accurate reading.

Many turkey come with a ‘pop-up’ temperature indicator. To be safe, the internal temperature of the turkey should be checked with a food thermometer.

When carving your turkey, let it set for about 20 minutes. This will allow the juices to set and will make cutting up your bird much easier. Remember to remove all the stuffing from the turkey cavities prior to carving.

Turkey Roasting Timetable


4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1 ½ to 3 ¼ hours

8 to 12 pounds 2 ¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 ¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours

20 to 24 pounds 4 ½ to 5 hours


4 to 6 pounds (breast) n/a

6 to 8 pounds 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours

8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3 ½ hours

12 to 14 pounds 3 ½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4 ½ hours

18 to 20 pounds 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours

20 to 24 pounds 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours

While it is safe to cook a turkey from a frozen state, it will take at least 50% longer than the recommended time for a fully thawed turkey. Remember that the giblet packages must be removed from the neck cavity during cooking.

Optional Cooking Hints

• Tuck wings under the shoulders of the turkey for more even cooking. This is referred to as ‘akimbo.’

• Add ½ cup of water tot he bottom of the pan

• Place a tent of heavy-duty aluminum foil or a lid over your turkey for the first 1 to 1 ½ hours of cooking. This allows for maximum heat circulation, keeps the turkey moist and reduces the amount of splatter in the oven. Foil can be kept on the turkey to reduce over-browning as well.

• An oven cooking bag may also be used. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on the product.

Remember that in order to safely handle your turkey, you should always wash hands, utensils, your sink and any surfaces that come into contact with raw meat with hot, soapy water.

Storing Leftovers

• Meat, stuffing or gravy that are left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures greater than 90 degrees) should be discarded.

• Leftovers should be divided into small portions. Refrigerate or freeze in covered containers.

• Turkey and stuffing should be consumed within 3 to 4 days. Gravy should be eaten within 1 to 2 days.

• Frozen leftovers should be eaten within 2 to 6 months.

Reheating Your Turkey

Cooked turkey is delicious either cold or reheated!

In the oven

• Temperature should be set at no lower than 325 degrees F.

• Internal temperature of the turkey should be no less than 165 degrees F.

• Add a little broth or water to keep the turkey moist when reheating.

In the Microwave

• Cover and rotate food for even heating.

• Check the internal temperature of your lefovers to be sure they reach 165 degrees F.

• Times and power levels can be found in your owner’s manual.

Information provided courtesy of the USDA. For more information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline, 10:00am to 4:00 pm Eastern time, Monday through Friday.

Email [email protected]


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