Thanksgiving: Preparing Your Turkey and Trimmings Safely

Thanksgiving: Preparing Your Turkey and Trimmings Safely

The following recommendations can help you safely prepare your Thanksgiving meal.

The star of Thanksgiving dinner

If you are among the millions of Americans planning to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, it's essential to know how to do so safely. Otherwise, a turkey and its juices can be contaminated with germs that could make you, your family, and other guests sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers recommendations that can help you safely thaw, handle, and cook your Thanksgiving turkey. Additionally, they provide tips on how to take care of your leftovers safely.

Thaw your turkey safely.

Never thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter. It 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.

Here are three recommended methods you can use to thaw your turkey safely.

  1. 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 juices from dripping on other food.
    • Allow about 24 hours of thawing for each 4-5 pounds of turkey. For example: a 15-pound frozen turkey would need 3-4 full days to thaw in the refrigerator.
    • After thawing in the refrigerator, the turkey can remain in the refrigerator for up to 2 additional days before cooking.
  2. 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 keep the turkey juice contained and protect the turkey from the sink water.
    • Compress the air out of the bag and make sure your turkey is fully covered with cold tap water.
    • Change the thawing water every 30 minutes to encourage continual thawing. Otherwise, the frozen turkey will act as an ice cube and slow the thawing process.
    • Allow about 30 minutes of thawing for each pound of turkey. For example: a 15-pound frozen turkey would need 7-8 hours to thaw in cold water.
    • A turkey thawed in cold water must be cooked immediately after thawing.
  3. 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.

Handle your turkey with care

Raw turkey and its juices can contaminate anything they touch. Be sure to handle your turkey correctly to prevent harmful germs from spreading to your food, family, and friends. The following recommendations will prove helpful:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling the turkey.
  2. Use a separate cutting board for raw turkey.
  3. Never allow the raw turkey or its juices to come in contact with cooked food or fresh produce that is ready to eat.
  4. Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with soap and hot water after preparing the raw turkey and before you prepare the next item.
  5. Do not wash or rinse the raw turkey, as this activity increases the risk of bacteria from the raw poultry coming in contact with other foods.

Cook your stuffing thoroughly.

If your goal is to take a stuffed turkey out of the oven on Thanksgiving Day, the outcome may prove less than ideal. Consider the following recommendations:

  1. It’s safest to cook stuffing (dressing) in a casserole dish instead of inside your turkey. Doing so ensures the stuffing is thoroughly cooked.
  2. However, if you prefer to cook your stuffing in the turkey, put it inside the bird just before cooking.
  3. Regardless of how you cook the stuffing, use an accurate food thermometer to ensure the stuffing’s center reaches 165°F.
  4. If you cook the stuffing in your turkey, wait 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing the stuffing. This allows the stuffing to cook a little longer.

Cook your turkey thoroughly.

The following recommendations will prove helpful for roasting a turkey in your oven.

  1. Set the oven temperature to at least 325°F.
  2. Place the completely thawed turkey in a roasting pan 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. Cooking times depend on the weight of the turkey and whether it is stuffed.
  3. Use a food thermometer to ensure the turkey and stuffing have 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.
  4. Even if your turkey has a pop-up timer, you should still use a food thermometer to check that it is safely cooked.
  5. Let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving the meat. This practice makes the turkey easier to carve.

Take care of your leftovers.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a Thanksgiving dinner is the leftovers. Keep your leftovers safe by:

  1. Refrigerating leftovers at 40°F or colder within 2 hours of cooking to prevent food poisoning.
  2. Slicing the larger cuts of meat into smaller pieces for refrigeration so they can cool quickly.
  3. Reheating all leftovers to at least 165°F before serving.

Keep your Thanksgiving happy and safe.

Follow the Four Food Safety Practices. These simple guidelines will help you protect your family and friends from foodborne illnesses. Just remember to clean, separate, cook, and chill!

  • When preparing a turkey, as with all fresh products, wash your hands, surfaces, and cooking utensils before and after exposure to the raw poultry and its juices.
  • Avoid cross-contaminating other foods with raw turkey.
  • Cook your food to a proper internal temperature.
  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly to minimize the risk of making someone ill.

The Moultrie County Health Department wishes you a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday!

Adult Health Topics