November is once again upon us, and although we may still be mourning the loss of summer, the coming festivities with family and friends brings excitement and thoughts of our traditional turkey-centric feast. The Partnership for Food Safety Education has resources available to help ensure your feast doesn’t turn into a disaster.

Preparing for the purchase

Make plenty of room in your refrigerator prior to purchasing the turkey. You will need enough room to be able to store the turkey in a large pan to prevent drippings from contaminating other food. Once purchased, the turkey should be stored in the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator until it is time to cook it. Fresh turkeys have a shorter shelf life but need to be thawed. Frozen turkeys allow you to purchase in advance, and have a longer shelf life, but they will need several days to thaw. When considering how big of a turkey to buy, you should plan on one pound per person.

Thawing frozen turkeys

Always keep your turkey frozen until you are ready to thaw it. You will need about 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. Once thawed, the turkey can stay in the refrigerator for an additional 1-2 days. This is also a good time to purchase a refrigerator thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is staying at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. You do not want to put all this effort into defrosting a turkey, just to have it spoil because your refrigerator is too warm.

If your purchase your turkey late, or it is still frozen on the day of the feast, you can thaw your turkey in cold water. Make sure the wrapping on the turkey is leak proof and doesn’t have any tears. Submerge the turkey in cold potable water. Be sure to change the water every 30 minutes. It will take approximately 30 minutes per pound of turkey to fully thaw. The turkey will need to be cooked immediately after thawing. Never use hot or warm water to thaw the turkey.

Stuffing a turkey

For safety, it is recommended that stuffing be prepared and cooked separately from the turkey. However, if you do choose to stuff your turkey, prepare the stuffing immediately before placing into the turkey and oven. The stuffing should be placed loosely into the turkey, and will require approximately 3/4 cup per pound of turkey. Excess stuffing can be baked in a separate dish until it reaches 165 F, as measured using a food thermometer.

Cooking the turkey

Preheat the oven to 325 F. The general rule is that you will need 20 minutes of cooking time for a pound of turkey, but this can vary depending on whether the turkey is stuffed. For stuffed turkeys, plan on 22-26 minutes of cooking time per pound. Cook the turkey and/or stuffing until it reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 F. Insert a food thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, wing and breast, but be sure to not touch the bone. Checking the temperature in multiple locations will ensure the entire turkey is cooked to 165 F. If the turkey is stuffed, you will also need to check the internal temperature of the stuffing. If the turkey is finished cooking but the stuffing is below 165 F, remove the stuffing and place it in a casserole dish to continue cooking until it has reached the proper temperature. The use of a food thermometer can help ensure your turkey and stuffing are cooked thoroughly, while also ensuring that it is not overcooked. It is a good idea to check the temperature of the turkey and stuffing often as it nears the end of the anticipated cooking time.

Serving and storing leftovers

Let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving. Use a clean cutting board to carve the turkey and capture the juices. Make sure leftovers are placed into the refrigerator or freezer within two hours after cooking. Store excess food in shallow containers to allow for faster cooling. If there are large pieces of turkey, cut them into smaller pieces so they can cool in the refrigerator quickly. Leftovers stored in the refrigerator should be eaten or frozen within 3-4 days. Turkey will keep for 3-4 months in the freezer. Be sure to heat any leftovers to 165 F before consuming.

For more food-safe holiday tips — and tasty holiday recipes — visit the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s website at www.fightbac.org/free-resources/holidayfoodsafetyresources/.

If you have a food safety question you would like to see appear in this column, send your question to us at food.safety@wsu.edu.


Stephanie Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food safety specialist for Washington State University Extension. She can be reached at food.safety@wsu.edu or at (855) 335-0575.

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