Let’s Talk Turkey

By Shakera Williams, MPH, Assistant Extension Nutrition Agent

We are 21 days from the Thanksgiving holiday. The Thanksgiving meal is the largest meal Americans prepare for each year with turkey as the main attraction. Did you know, 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving?  In fact, 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Below are some helpful tips to consider for your Thanksgiving feast.

Three ways to thaw a Turkey safely:

An important step in the preparation process is thawing your turkey. There are three safe ways to thaw your turkey:

  1. Refrigerator Method: Place your bird as originally wrapped on a shelf with a pan underneath it to catch any leaking juices. Allow approximately 24 hours for each four to five pounds of bird to thaw. After thawing, it’s safe to store the turkey for up to two more days. This is the USDA’s recommended method of thawing. Below are some specific thawing times in the refrigerator.

Thawing Time in Refrigerator:

Size of Turkey: 4 to 12 pounds takes 1 to 3 days; 12 to 16 pounds takes 3 to 4 days; 12 to 16 pounds takes 4 to 5 days; and, 20 to 24 pounds takes 5 to 6 days.

2. Microwave Method: Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instructions when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.

3. Cold Water Method: Submerge the bird in its original packaging in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to defrost. Cook immediately after thawing. Below are some specific thawing times for cold water usage.

Thawing Time in Cold Water:

Size of Turkey: 4 to 12 pounds takes 2 to 6 hours; 12 to 16 pounds takes 6 to 8 hours; 16 to 20 pounds takes 8 to 10 hours; and, 20 to 24 pounds takes 10 to 12 hours.

Cooking a Turkey

Follow the four simple steps to food safety (Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill) to prevent the spread of many types of infection and food-borne illness.

Clean: Keep bacteria out of your kitchen by washing your hands before, during and after you handle raw food. Make sure food preparation surfaces and utensils are clean. Do not wash the turkey. This only spreads pathogens onto kitchen surfaces. The only way to kill bacteria that cause foodborne illness is to fully cook the turkey.

Separate: Keep raw meat and poultry separate from produce and cooked foods by using different cutting boards.

Cook: Use a food thermometer to ensure your turkey is safe to eat. The recommended internal temperature must reach 165 F in three places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing.

Chill: Your meal on the dinner table has only two hours before it becomes unsafe, and bacteria starts to multiply. Make sure you put out just enough food for your guests and place the rest in your fridge in shallow containers. Store leftovers in shallow pans or containers to decrease cooling time. This prevents the food from spending too much time at unsafe temperatures (between 40 F to 140 F).

Is it safe to cook a frozen turkey?

Absolutely. The cooking time will be 50 percent longer than normal.

Is stuffing your turkey risky?

Cooking a home-stuffed turkey is somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Even if the turkey has reached the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria that may be present. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly resulting in food-borne illness. Ensure that both the turkey and stuffing has reached a internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Stuffing a Turkey

1. Stuff loosely. Stuffing should be moist, not dry since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.

2. Place stuffed turkey in oven immediately

3. Remove all stuffing from the turkey cavity immediately and refrigerate it

Cooking Time for Unstuffed Turkey

Size of Turkey: 8 to 12 pounds takes 2-3/4 to 3 hours; 12 to 14 pounds takes 3 to 3-3/4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds takes 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds takes 4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours; and 20 to 20 pounds takes 4-1/5 to 5 hours.

Cooking Time for Stuffed Turkey

Size of Turkey: 8 to 12 pounds takes 3 to 3-1/2 hours; 12 to 14 pounds takes 3-1/2 to 4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds takes 4 to 4-1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds takes 4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours; and, 20 to 24 pounds takes 4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hours.

If you have any additional questions please contact, Shakera Williams, MPH Assistant Extension Nutrition Agent Webster/ Claiborne Parishes at 318 371-1371 or by email sswilliams@agcenter.lsu.edu

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can be reached at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert or chat live at  ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.

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