Let’s talk turkey

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Let’s talk turkey!

You might think that because turkey is the main attraction in many an American holiday meal most people know all they need or want to know about preparing it as well as storing the leftovers. But that is not necessarily the case as shown by inquiries received by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline.

Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the preferred method to use for safety reasons. The following chart shows how long it will take to thaw turkeys of various sizes in the refrigerator. Simply place the turkey in its original wrap on a tray or in a pan to catch moisture that accumulates as it thaws.


Whole Turkey
8 to 12 pounds 1 to 2 days
12 to 16 pounds 2 to 3 days
16 to 20 pounds 3 to 4 days
20 to 24 pounds 4 to 5 days
Pieces of large turkey
half, quarter, breast half 1 to 2 days

Thawing a turkey at room temperature is not recommended because room temperatures fall within the danger zone that promote active growth of bacteria. Left out on a counter, a frozen turkey will thaw from the outside in. As its surface warms, bacteria multiply. In the time that elapses while the turkey is thawing, the surface bacteria can multiply to dangerous levels. You cannot rely on cooking to destroy all bacteria. Some food poisoning organisms produce toxins that are able to withstand heat.

Once the turkey has thawed, it requires little preparation before cooking. Remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity. Wash the inside and outside of the turkey in cold water and drain well. To prevent the spread of bacteria, wash your hands, utensils and sink after they have come in contact with the raw turkey.

To prepare a whole turkey for roasting, place the turkey breast side up on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Do not add water. Before placing the turkey in the oven, you  may want to brush it lightly with cooking oil or melted butter, although this is not necessary. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh muscle without touching the bone.

Roast at 325° according to the directions give. Basting is usually not necessary during roasting since it cannot penetrate the turkey. Never partially roast a turkey one day and complete roasting the next. Interrupted cooking enhances the possibility of bacterial growth.

The turkey is done when 1) the meat thermometer register 180° to 185° in the inner thigh of a whole turkey, 2) juice from the turkey is clear with no pink color, and 3) the drumstick meat feels soft and the leg joint moves easily.

Now, what do you do with all of the leftovers?

Handling cooked turkey incorrectly can result in food poisoning. Think of the post-cooking stage as a countdown which begins when you take the turkey out of the over. From that time, you have approximately two hours to serve it and then refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. How the leftovers are stored is also important in preventing bacterial growth. Large quantities should be divided into smaller portions and stored in several small or shallow covered containers so that these smaller amounts will get cold more quickly. Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days. For longer storage, package items in freezer paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil and freeze them. Proper wrapping will prevent freezer burn. Don’t forget to date the packages and use the older ones first. Frozen turkey should be used within one month.

If you should have additional questions about turkey or other meat and poultry products, contact the Meat and Poultry Hotline at 800-535-4555.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Home and Garden Bulletin No. 243

Read more about turkey

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Butterball – recipes, instructional videos, leftovers

The National Turkey Federation

Updated February 7, 2023 9:23am