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Preparing Your Holiday Turkey Safely

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Thanksgiving table with whole roasted turkey.

Are you preparing a turkey for your holiday meal? Turkey and its juice can be contaminated with germs that can make you and your family sick. For example, turkey can contain SalmonellaClostridium perfringensCampylobacter, and other germs. Whether you’re cooking a whole bird or a part of it, such as the breast, you should take special care. Follow the steps below to safely store, thaw, handle, and cook your turkey.

1. Store Turkey Properly

  • Frozen raw turkey should be stored in the freezer until you are ready to thaw it. Make sure your freezer is at 0˚F or below. Don’t store a turkey in a place where you can’t closely monitor the temperature, such as in a car trunk, a basement, the back porch, or in snow.
  • Fresh raw turkey can be stored in the refrigerator 1–2 days before cooking.

2. Thaw Turkey Safely

Use one of these methods to thaw your turkey:

  • Thaw your turkey in the refrigerator.
    • Keep your turkey in its original wrapping and place it in a container before putting it in the refrigerator. The container will prevent the turkey’s juice from dripping on other food.  
    • Allow about 24 hours of thawing for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.
    • A turkey thawed in the refrigerator can remain in the refrigerator for 1–2 days before cooking.
  • Thaw your turkey in cold water.  
    • Be sure your turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag before you place it in the sink. The bag will prevent the turkey’s juice from spreading in the kitchen. It will also prevent the turkey from absorbing water, which can make your cooked turkey runny.
    • Make sure your turkey is fully covered with the cold tap water.
    • Change the water every 30 minutes.
    • Allow about 30 minutes of thawing for each pound of turkey.
    • A turkey thawed in cold water must be cooked immediately after thawing.
  • Thaw your turkey in the microwave.
    • Follow the microwave manufacturer’s instructions for thawing turkeys.
    • A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately after thawing.
  • Never thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter. A turkey must thaw at a safe temperature. When a turkey stays out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, its temperature becomes unsafe even if the center is still frozen. Germs can grow rapidly in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F.

3. Handle Turkey Correctly to Prevent the Spread of Germs

Raw turkey and its juice can contaminate anything they touch. Be sure to handle your turkey correctly to prevent harmful germs from spreading to your food, family, and friends. 

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after handling turkey.
  • Use a separate cutting board for raw turkey.
  • Never place cooked food or fresh produce on a plate, cutting board, or other surface that held raw turkey.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing raw turkey and before you prepare the next item.
  • Do not wash or rinse raw turkey. Washing your turkey can make you and your family sick. Poultry juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops.

4. Cook Stuffing Thoroughly

It’s safest to cook stuffing in a casserole dish instead of inside your turkey. Cooking stuffing in a casserole dish makes it easy to be sure the stuffing is thoroughly cooked. If you do cook stuffing in the turkey, put the stuffing in the turkey just before cooking.

With either cooking method, use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165°F. Germs can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165°F. If you cooked the stuffing in your turkey, wait 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing the stuffing.

5. Cook Turkey Thoroughly

To roast a turkey in your oven, set the oven temperature to at least 325°F. Place the completely thawed turkey in a roasting pan that is 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. Cooking times depend on the weight of the turkey and whether it is stuffed.

Use a food thermometer to make sure the turkey has reached a safe minimum cooking temperature of 165°F. Check by inserting a food thermometer into the center of the stuffing and the thickest part of the breast, thigh, and wing. Even if your turkey has a pop-up timer, you should still use a food thermometer to check that it is safely cooked. Let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat. This will let the stuffing cook a little longer and make the turkey easier to carve.

If you are cooking your turkey using another method, such as smoking or frying it, or roasting a turkey that is not fully thawed, follow these guidelines for cooking your bird safely.

Learn more about safe minimum cooking temperatures for other foods and how to use a food thermometer.

6. Take Care of Leftovers

Refrigerate leftovers at 40°F or colder within 2 hours of serving to prevent food poisoning. Slice or divide big cuts of meat, such as a roast turkey, into small quantities for refrigeration so they can cool quickly. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165°F before serving.

Cooked turkey and dishes made with turkey, such as a casserole, can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or can be frozen to store longer.

Always refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours, or 1 hour if exposed to temperatures above 90°F (like a hot car or picnic).