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SOS on Turkey Day – My Turkey Isn’t Ready, What Do I Do Now?

Written By: Chrystal Okonta, MSPH, CHES, Technical Information Specialist

SOS on Turkey Day – My Turkey Isn’t Ready, What Do I Do Now?

On Thanksgiving, sometimes mistakes happen that make your turkey day a turkey don’t. What should you do if the turkey isn’t ready in time? Here are some ways to save the day.

If you don’t have time to cook a whole turkey:
Cook turkey parts, which can be ready in a fraction of the time. Roasting turkey breasts, thighs, or wings instead of the whole bird also allows you to ensure they all remain moist. Set your oven to at least 325°F. Use your food thermometer and insert it in the thickest part of each piece, avoiding the bone; each is done when it reaches a safe internal temperature of 165°F.

Turkey Product

Weight

Timing

Breast, Half

2 to 3 pounds

50 to 60 minutes

Breast, Whole

4 to 8 pounds

1 ½ to 3 ¼ hours

Thighs, Drumsticks

¾ to 1 pound each

1 ¾ to 2 ¼ hours

Wings, Wing drumettes

6 to 8 ounces each

1 ¾ to 2 ¼ hours

“Spatchcock” your turkey. Cut out the backbone of the turkey using kitchen shears, then flip it over and press firmly on the breast bones so the turkey lays flat. Roast it in the oven at 450°F; for a 12-pound turkey, cook for about 70 minutes. You can also grill a spatchcocked turkey. Use a food thermometer to check that it reaches 165°F in three places: 1) the innermost part of the thigh, 2) the innermost part of the wing, and 3) the thickest part of the breast.

Cook two smaller turkeys. Make sure you have enough space in your oven so that heat can properly circulate around both and cook them evenly. Use the timing for the smaller turkey as your guide, and check that each turkey reaches 165°F in the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast.

Product

Weight

Unstuffed Timing

Whole Turkey

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

If your turkey is still frozen solid:
Try a safe quick-thawing method. Cold water: Keep the bird in its airtight packaging or a leak-proof bag, submerge it in cold water, and change the water every 30 minutes. Microwave: Use your manufacturer guidelines to thaw for about 6 minutes per pound. Make sure your turkey can fit in the microwave. After using these methods, your turkey must be cooked immediately. Remember to clean and sanitize your microwave, sink, and surfaces, and wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw turkey.

Cook it from the frozen state (NOTE: don’t use an oven bag). A frozen turkey will take at least 50% longer to cook than a thawed turkey. It may be tough to get the giblets out, but you can pull out the packet with tongs once the turkey has been baking for 20 to 30 minutes. When the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast reach 165°F, it is ready to eat.

Weight

Timing (from Frozen)

4 to 8 pounds (breast)

2 ¼ to 5 hours

8 to 12 pounds

4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours

12 to 14 pounds

4 ½ to 5 ¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds

5 ¾ to 6 ½ hours

18 to 20 pounds

6 ½ to 6 ¾ hours

20 to 24 pounds

6 ¾ to 7 ½ hours

If cooking a turkey is intimidating:
Try a smaller poultry product like chicken, duck, or Cornish game hens. These birds may be easier to handle and take less time to reach a safe internal temperature, even whole. You can cook poultry parts for even more time savings. All poultry products must be cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165°F as measured by a food thermometer.

Type of Poultry

Roast

Braise/Simmer

Grill (direct heat unless noted**)

Whole duck

30 to 35 min per pound at 350°F.

Not preferred

Not preferred

Duck breast

Brown skin-side down in a skillet over medium heat. Then cook 12 min in a 425°F oven.

60 to 75 minutes

Grill skin side down 6 min; turn and grill 7 to 8 min.

Duck legs or thighs

Roast 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours at 325°F.

1½ hours

30 min, turning every 5 min.

Whole chicken

1 ¼ to 2 ¼ hrs at 350°F.

1 to 2 hrs.

18 to 25 min./lb.**

Whole Cornish hens

50 to 60 min at 350°F.

35 to 40 min.

45 to 55 min.**

Buy options at your local grocery store, like a rotisserie chicken, or even a complete Thanksgiving meal including turkey. When you purchase cooked food, do not leave it out for more than 2 hours. Have your oven, chafing dishes, or warming trays ready to keep your food above 140°F. If you pick up your meal early, store it in the refrigerator. Break down the poultry and pack it into smaller containers in the fridge. You can reheat it in the oven or microwave with gravy, broth or water to keep the meat moist.

Regardless of your turkey day dilemma, we are here to help! Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 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.

You can also visit FoodSafety.gov to learn more about how to safely select, thaw and prepare a turkey. For more Thanksgiving food safety tips, follow FSIS on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety or on Facebook at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.