Holiday Food Safety: Talkin’ Turkey

Foil-Wrapped Turkey is the Best - Coming to this Blog Soon!

During the holidays, as you sit down to the turkey dinner you prepared for family and friends, do you have two fingers crossed hoping the bird is not undercooked and that you don’t give everyone salmonella poisoning?  Or, do you notice guests politely spitting-up mouthfuls into their napkins because they cannot choke down the tough, overcooked meat?  Both scenarios will make holiday memories, but not in a good way.  With a little information in your apron pocket, you’ll be a confident cook and prepare a moist, delicious turkey that your guests will savor, here’s how: 

Shopping:  If you purchase a fresh bird, try to buy it within 4 days of the day you plan to cook it and place it in the back, coldest section of your refrigerator.  If you purchase a frozen bird, be sure you buy it in advance, allowing enough time for it to defrost in your refrigerator (see defrost times below).  Keep in mind that some turkeys, such as Butterball, will have a layer of butter under the skin.  This is to help keep the meat moist, but it may be too greasy for some people – it’s a personal preference.  A pop-up indicator is not necessary, since you will be checking the doneness with a meat thermometer.

A Meat Thermometer - Don't Cook Meat Without It!

Meat Thermometer:  If you do not have one, buy one.  Try to purchase one that does not include “helpful” tips on what temperature to cook different meats.  I have found these guidelines to be incorrect.  For example, whole poultry is often suggested to cook to a temperature of 180°F, which is not necessary.

Thawing:  If your turkey is frozen, you will need to defrost it completely before cooking.  Always defrost your bird in the refrigerator and allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 4-5 pounds of turkey.  Here are approximate thawing times:

4-12 pounds = 1-3 days

12-16 pounds = 3-4 days

16-20 pounds = 4-5 days

20-24 pounds = 5-6 days

Cooking Time and Temperature:  A whole turkey must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F throughout.  Although safe to eat, some meat may still be slightly pink at this temperature, so you may choose to cook the bird longer.  Check the following sections: the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.  If your bird is stuffed, the center of the stuffing must also reach 165°F as well.  Always cook your turkey in an oven set to at least to 325°F.  Here are estimated times to reach 165°F for stuffed and unstuffed turkeys:


8-12 pounds = 2 3/4 – 3 hours

12-14 pounds = 3 – 3 3/4 hours

14-18 pounds = 3 3/4 – 4 1/4 hours

18 -20 pounds = 4 1/4 – 4 1/2 hours

20-24 pounds = 4 1/2 – 5 hours


8-12 pounds = 3 – 3 1/2 hours

12-14 pounds = 3 1/2  – 4 hours

14-18 pounds = 4 – 4 1/4 hours

18-20 pounds = 4 1/4 – 4 3/4 hours

20-24 pounds = 4 3/4 – 5 1/4 hours

Stuffing:  Stuffing your turkey needs to be done properly to avoid food-borne illness.  Never stuff a turkey that you plan to fry, grill, smoke or microwave.  With that in mind, here are some tips to follow:

  • Cook Raw Ingredients:  If you are preparing stuffing using raw meat, poultry, or shellfish, these ingredients should be cooked first.
  • Wet and Dry Ingredients:  The wet ingredients for the stuffing can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated, but do not mix the wet and dry together until you are ready to stuff the bird.
  • Stuff Loosely:  Do not cool the stuffing – just spoon it directly into the turkey cavity after preparation.  Also, stuff loosely, about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound.  The stuffing should be moist, not dry, as this helps the heat from the oven to kill bacteria.
  • Cook Immediately:  As soon as the bird is stuffed, it should go directly into a preheated oven set no lower than 325°F.
  • Check the temperature:  The stuffing must reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F to kill any harmful bacteria.  If the rest of the turkey has reached this temperature, but your stuffing has not, Do Not remove the stuffing early because it may contaminate the meat.  Just continue cooking the turkey until the center of the stuffing is safely cooked.

Let it Rest:  After removing it from the oven, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.

Leftovers:  Refrigerate cooked turkey and stuffing within 2 hours of cooking by placing leftovers in shallow containers to encourage rapid cooling.  Use or freeze all leftovers within 4 days.  Always reheat leftovers to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F as well – that’s the sweet spot!  Now…..time for dessert!

For more information, click on these links:

 University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service – Ask Karen (for all your food safety questions)

***Do you have any food safety stories you wish to share?  Any food safety tips?  Click on the title of this post and scroll down to leave a comment.***


2 Comments on “Holiday Food Safety: Talkin’ Turkey”

  1. DAD says:

    I think I seen that picture of the turkey before.

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