All about turkey basics!

Safe Defrosting
Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during "the big thaw." While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon it begins to defrost, any bacteria which may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.

A package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the "danger zone" between 40 and 140 °F -- at a temperature when foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly.

There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

Handling Frozen Turkeys
Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer -- or refrigerator, if you want to begin defrosting it.

Frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored or ensured.

Refrigerator Thawing
When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, there are several variables to take into account:

Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F.
Some areas of an appliance may keep the food colder than others. A turkey placed in the coldest part will require longer defrosting time.
Refrigerator Thawing Times
(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
Foods defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, but there may be some loss of quality.

Microwave Thawing
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. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present would not have been destroyed.

After cooking, meat from a turkey thawed in the microwave can be refrozen.

Cold Water Thawing
Allow about 30 minutes per pound. First be sure the food is in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Tissues can also absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product.

Immerse the turkey in cold tap water. Check the water frequently to be sure it stays cold. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times
8 to 12 pounds...........4 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds...........6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds.........8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds.......10 to 12 hours
A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.

Consumer Information From USDA
Slightly Revised November 1998

Safe Cooking
Recommended cooking techniques must also be followed. A meat thermometer should be used to ensure a sufficient internal temperature has been reached to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness -- as well as to prevent overcooking.

Many variables can affect the roasting time of the whole bird:

A partially frozen bird requires longer cooking.
Dark roasting pans cook faster than shiny metals.
The depth and size of the pan can reduce heat circulation to all areas of the bird.
The use of a foil tent for the entire time can slow cooking.
Use of the roasting pan's lid speeds cooking.
An oven cooking bag can accelerate cooking time.
A stuffed bird takes longer to cook.
Oven may heat food unevenly.
Calibration of the oven's thermostat may be inaccurate.
The rack position can have an effect on even cooking and heat circulation.
A turkey or its pan may be too large for the oven, thus blocking heat circulation.
1. Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 °F. Preheating is not necessary.

2. Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Times are based on fresh or completely thawed frozen birds at a refrigerator temperature of 40 °F or below.

3. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep.

Optional steps:

Tuck wing tips back under shoulders of bird (called "akimbo").
Add 1/2 cup water to the bottom of the pan.
In the beginning, a tent of aluminum foil may be placed loosely over the breast of the turkey for the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours, then removed for browning. Or, a tent of foil may be placed over the turkey after the turkey has reached the desired golden brown.
4. If a meat thermometer is not available, cook stuffing in a casserole. Mix ingredients just before stuffing a turkey; stuff loosely. Additional time is required for the turkey and stuffing to reach a safe internal temperature (see chart below).

5. For safety and doneness, the internal temperature should be checked with a meat thermometer.

The temperature must reach 180 °F in the thigh of a whole turkey (center of the stuffing should reach 165 °F) before removing it from the oven. Cook a turkey breast to 170 °F.

6. Juices should be clear. In the absence of a meat thermometer, pierce an unstuffed turkey with a fork in several places; juices should be clear with no trace of pink.

7. Let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving.


4 to 6 lb breast.....1 1/2 to 2 1/4 hrs
6 to 8 lb breast...2 1/4 to 3 1/4 hrs
8 to 12 lbs................2 3/4 to 3 hrs
12 to 14 lbs..............3 to 3 3/4 hrs
14 to 18 lbs........3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hrs
18 to 20 lbs........4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hrs
20 to 24 lbs..............4 1/2 to 5 hrs

8 to 12 lbs...............3 to 3 1/2 hrs
12 to 14 lbs..............3 1/2 to 4 hrs
14 to 18 lbs..............4 to 4 1/4 hrs
18 to 20 lbs........4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hrs
20 to 24 lbs........4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hrs

Food Safety and Inspection Service,
Food Safety Education & Communications Staff
(202) 720-7943; Fax (202) 720-9063

Consumer Information From USDA
Slightly Revised November 1998

Handling Cooked Dinners
Take-out Dinners Hot from the Oven
Eating Within 2 hours?
Pick up the food HOT...and keep it HOT. Keeping foods warm is not enough. Harmful bacteria multiply fastest between 40 and 140 °F.

Set oven temperature high enough to keep the turkey at 140 °F or above. (Use a meat thermometer.) Stuffing and side dishes must also stay HOT. Covering with foil will help keep the food moist.

Eating Much Later?
It's not a good idea to try and keep foods hot longer than 2 hours. They will be safer and taste better if you:

Remove all stuffing from the turkey cavity immediately and refrigerate.
Cut turkey off the bone and refrigerate. Slice breast meat; legs and wings may be left whole.
Refrigerate potatoes, gravy, and vegetables, too, in shallow containers.
Reheat thoroughly to 165 °F until hot and steaming. Bring gravy to a rolling boil.

In the microwave oven, cover food and rotate dish so it heats evenly. Follow the microwave manufacturer's instructions. Inadequate heating in the microwave or conventional oven can contribute to foodborne illness.

Cooked and Refrigerated
Keep Cold foods COLD.
Refrigerate cold foods as soon as you get home (always within 2 hours). Serve your meal within 1 to 2 days.

Reheating a Whole Turkey is NOT Recommended.
If you plan to reheat a turkey, cut the meat off the bone. Slice breast meat. Legs and wings may be left whole. Refrigerate in shallow containers. Exception: Cooked turkeys with the USDA inspection seal on the packaging have been processed under controlled conditions. Follow package directions for reheating and storing.

Handling Leftovers
Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly in shallow containers. It is safe to freeze leftover turkey and trimmings -- even if you purchased them frozen. Wrap tightly for best quality.

Cooked Frozen Turkey; Side Dishes
Is USDA Inspection Seal Visible?
This seal on the label tells you the turkey was prepared in a USDA- inspected plant. Read and follow package directions for thawing, reheating, and storing.

No Handling Instructions on Label?
Follow these steps:

Thaw the wrapped, cooked frozen turkey on a tray in the refrigerator. Allow about a day for every 5 pounds. Small packages such as stuffing, gravy, or potatoes will thaw in less time. Side dishes can go from freezer to oven.
Once the cooked turkey thaws, eat it (either cold or reheated to 165 °F) within 3 to 4 days (stuffing and gravy in 1 to 2 days).
To reheat turkey, cut the meat off the bones. Slice breast meat. Legs and wings may be left whole.
Storage of Leftovers
Refrigerator (40 °F or slightly below)
Cooked Turkey...............3 to 4 days
Stuffing and Gravy...........1 to 2 days
Other Cooked Dishes......3 to 4 days
Freezer (0 °F or below)
Turkey slices/pieces, plain.............................4 mos.
Turkey covered with broth or gravy...............6 mos.
Cooked poultry dishes..................................4 to 6 mos.
Stuffing and gravy.........................................1 mo.
(Foods frozen longer remain safe but may become drier and lose flavor.)

Thermometer Essential When Stuffing a Turkey
If stuffing a turkey, use a meat thermometer. Cooking a home-stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Bacteria can survive in stuffing which has not reached the safe temperature of 165 °F, possibly resulting in foodborne illness. Even if the turkey itself has reached the proper internal temperature of 180 °F in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature in all parts of the stuffing sufficient to destroy foodborne bacteria.

If stuffing does not reach 165 °F when the turkey itself is done to 180 °F, further cooking will be required. During the added cooking necessary to bring the stuffing up to a safe temperature, the meat may become overcooked.

For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately.

Frozen Turkeys Stuffed at the Plant Under USDA Inspection
Some turkeys purchased frozen have been stuffed at a plant under USDA inspection. These turkeys should be safe when cooked from the frozen state. Follow the manufacturer's package directions.

Stuffing Safely
For stuffing cooked in a turkey or in a casserole, some basic rules should be followed. Care must be taken at the following critical points during preparation, cooking, and handling.

1. Handling Raw Turkeys Safely
Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the turkey home and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Cook a fresh turkey within 2 days or freeze it. Defrost frozen turkeys in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours per 5 pounds.

For thawing in cold water, allow about 30 minutes per pound. The water should be changed every 30 minutes. A turkey may be thawed in the microwave following the oven manufacturer’s instructions, but must be cooked immediately after thawing.

2. Prepare Stuffing Safely
Mix stuffing just before it goes into the turkey. The wet and dry ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and chilled. Mix ingredients just before placing the stuffing inside the turkey or into a casserole.

3. Stuffing Properly
The turkey should be stuffed loosely -- about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.

4. Use a Thermometer
The stuffed turkey should be placed immediately in an oven set no lower than 325 °F. Even when using a "pop-up" temperature indicator, a conventional meat thermometer must be used to test in several places, including the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing. The bird is done when the thermometer temperature reaches at least 180 °F in the innermost part of the thigh. Juices should run clear. Cook until the center of the stuffing inside the turkey or in a casserole reaches 165 °F. Let bird stand for 20 minutes before removing all stuffing and carving.

5. Storing Leftovers
Within 2 hours of cooking, cut turkey off the bones. Refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 4 days.

For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education and Communications Staff
Meat and Poultry Hotline:

1-800-535-4555 (Tollfree Nationwide)
(202) 720-3333 (Washington, DC area)
1-800-256-7072 (TDD/TTY)
Food Safety and Inspection Service,
Food Safety Education & Communications Staff
(202) 720-7943; Fax (202) 720-9063

Safe Handling Guidelines from USDA Publications

Consumer Information From USDA
Slightly Revised November 1998


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