By Chris Bernstein, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA
Preparing for Thanksgiving can become hectic. On Monday we tried to make your trip to the grocery store a little easier, by explaining the labels you’ll find on turkeys for sale. Now that you have your bird, you’re probably thinking about putting your game face on and getting that meal ready.
In between trying to convince your 21-year-old nephew to sit at the kid’s table (because there’s no room at the adult table) and figuring out how you’ll answer your relatives’ questions about where your current relationship is going, we want to help you prepare your meal. With such thoughts possibly running through your head, proper food safety practices are sometimes treated like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving: always required but too often ignored and overshadowed.
Handle and Store Turkey at a Safe Temperature
Ensuring that your turkey is safe for consumption on Thanksgiving starts long before you actually begin cooking the bird. Proper handling and storage of your turkey at a safe temperature are just as important as cooking it correctly. Forget to do so and you may end up serving harmful pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter to your guests. Those bacteria can be present on and inside turkeys, and they cannot be cleaned off or killed by washing the bird. Washing a turkey only spreads these bacteria around your sink and counter, where they can cause harm.
Although keeping your turkey refrigerated slows bacterial growth, cooking is the only way to destroy bacteria and other pathogens that can cause foodborne illness. Each bacterium grows most quickly when the bird is in the food “Danger Zone” (40-140 degrees °F). Protect your guests by purchasing two thermometers:
Refrigerator thermometer: ensures your turkey is stored at a safe temperature (40 °F or slightly below).
Food thermometer: ensures your cooked turkey reaches a safe temperature (165 °F).
Thaw with Care
Another important step in the preparation process is thawing your turkey. There are three safe ways to thaw your turkey:
Refrigerator: place your bird as originally wrapped on a shelf with a pan underneath it to catch any leaking juices. Allow approximately 24 hours for each four to five pounds of bird to thaw. After thawing, it’s safe to store the turkey for up to two more days. This is the USDA’s recommended method of thawing.
Cold Water Method: Submerge the bird in its original packaging in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to defrost. Cook immediately after thawing.
Size of Turkey
Number of Days to Thaw
in the Refrigerator
Number of Hours to Thaw in
4 to 12 pounds
1 to 3 days
2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds
3 to 4 days
6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds
4 to 5 days
8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds
5 to 6 days
10 to 12 hours
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.
It’s possible to cook a frozen turkey without thawing it first, but this usually takes about 50 percent more time.
If you follow these guidelines, you’ll successfully complete the preparation stage of your Thanksgiving feast. Next step: safely cooking that bird. Check back next week for that post and more.
For More Information
If you have more questions, visit Let’s Talk Turkey to learn how to safely plan, select, thaw, and prepare a turkey or check out these turkey resources at FoodSafety.gov. Stay tuned this month for more blogs about how you can make your holiday happy and healthy for everyone at the table.
If you have additional questions about cooking a turkey call, the USDA Food Safety Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, English or Spanish.
If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the USDA Food Safety Hotline will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. You can also ask questions of “Karen,” FSIS’ virtual representative, 24/7 at AskKaren.gov. Visit PregunteleaKaren.gov for questions in Spanish.