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Turkey FUNdamentals: Planning for Thanksgiving

Okay, so it’s your turn to host the annual Thanksgiving feast. Aunt Sara has been cooking turkeys for 40 years, and Cousin Rachel is a gourmet cook. Can you tackle a turkey without being traumatized?

Yes you can!  Believe it or not, taking care of “Tom” isn’t that tough, and it can actually be FUN!  Just follow USDA’s “Turkey FUNdamentals” and your bird will turn out fine. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline says that each November, both novice and experienced cooks have the same basic questions on preparing turkey. Here they are:

How Big of a Turkey Should I Buy?

You’ll need about one pound per person or a pound and a half per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample leftovers.

When Should I Buy the Turkey?

A frozen turkey can be purchased months in advance, but a fresh bird should be bought only one to two days ahead.

Should I Buy a Hen or a Tom?

Age, not gender, is the determining factor for tenderness. All turkeys in the market are young, usually four to six months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom is usually over 16 pounds.

How Long Will it Take to Thaw a Turkey?

It’s best to plan ahead and thaw your turkey in the refrigerator. The rule of thumb is 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey. So it will take a 20-pound bird four to five days to thaw.

If you need to speed up the thawing time, you can thaw the wrapped bird by submerging it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. This takes about 30 minutes per pound.  Thawing in the microwave can also save time. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for size of bird and timing.

How Long Should I Roast the Turkey?

Cooking time will vary. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimun internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, you may choose to cook the turkey to higher internal temperatures. If it is a stuffed bird, the stuffing temperature should also reach 165 °F.

What Do I Do if the Turkey is Done an Hour Ahead of Schedule? 

It is safe to hold a turkey in the oven at a reduced temperature. First use a food thermometer to make sure the bird is done.  Keep the thermometer in the meat.  Lower your oven temperature. Start by moving your oven setting to 200 °F. Adjust the temperature of the oven to assure that the temperature of the turkey never drops below 140 °F.  Check the food thermometer at regular intervals to make sure that 140 °F is maintained and keep the bird covered so it doesn’t dry out.

What Do I Do if the Turkey is Not Done on Time?

About the only thing you can do is to keep cooking. Do not keep opening and closing the oven door to check its progress. This will only lower the oven temperature and add to the cooking time.

Can You Roast the Turkey the Day Before? 

Yes.  In fact, more and more people are taking this route. For safety reasons, however, once the bird is cooked it must be cut into smaller pieces and stored in shallow containers in the refrigerator.  The meat can then be eaten cold or reheated when it is time to eat.  

For more information about turkey, check out these resources:

Do You Have Questions?

If you have additional questions about cooking a turkey call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Eastern Time, Monday through Friday; 10:00 am to 2:00 pm eastern Time on Thanksgiving Day. Operators are available in English and Spanish. You can also ask questions of “Karen,” FSIS’ virtual representative, 24/7 at

Posted in: HolidaysTagged: Turkey | Thanksgiving | Holiday | Roast | Meat