Holiday Turkey Guide
As the Holiday Season gets into full swing, we sometimes place food safety at the bottom of our priorities. Unfortunately, foodborne illness is a real concern, especially, when much of the season is defined by the foods we eat. Luckily, food safety does not require an enormous amount of effort; it does however, require knowledge and preparation. This Holiday Turkey Guide provides all the necessary steps to create a delicious and safe turkey.
Buying Your Turkey
The first step is purchasing the correct turkey for your needs. There are plenty of options and your circumstances (time, freezer space, patience) may dictate which one best meets your needs.
Fresh vs. Frozen Turkey
There are two main options when buying turkeys: fresh or frozen. According to the USDA, a fresh turkey is one that has never been stored below 26˚ F. Poultry kept below 0˚F must be labeled as “frozen” or “previously frozen.” There is no special labeling requirement for turkeys stored between 0 and 26˚F.
If you have extra freezer space and the time to thaw, you may save money purchasing a frozen turkey. If you do not have the time to properly thaw or are low on storage space, a fresh turkey may be the best option.
How Much Turkey
The USDA recommends purchasing one pound of turkey for each adult person. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture makes the same recommendation adding, “This allows everyone to enjoy a generous serving of turkey and enough extra turkey for additional meals.” The one pound per adult guideline is a good place to start; it may however, need to be adjusted to meet your family’s needs.
When to Purchase
If you’re using a fresh turkey, buy it 1-2 days before you plan to cook it. A frozen turkey can be kept in the freezer indefinitely; for best results, use within a year of purchase.
Thawing the Turkey
If you purchased a frozen turkey, you should completely thaw it before cooking. While it’s possible to roast a completely frozen turkey, cook times are approximately 50% longer compared to a thawed one. There are three ways to thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, using cold water, or in a microwave oven.
Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the easiest method, but requires the most time. Generally, you’ll need ~24 hours of thaw time for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. Use the table below as a guide. You can also use the turkey thaw time calculator for an estimate.
|Turkey Size||Thaw Time Required|
|4-12 pounds||1-3 days|
|12-16 pounds||3-4 days|
|16-20 pounds||4-5 days|
|20-24 pounds||5-6 days|
To thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, leave it in its original packaging and place it in a tray or pan to catch any leaks. Once thawed, a turkey can stay in the refrigerator for 1-2 days and may be re-frozen if necessary.
Cold Water Thawing
Though this method requires more work than the refrigerator method, it takes less time. To thaw a turkey in cold water, it should be wrapped securely so that the water is not able to leak through; leaving it in its original wrapper is the easiest option.
To thaw a turkey, submerge it in cold tap water and change the water out every 30 minutes. Once the turkey is thawed, cook it immediately and do not refreeze it. This method requires ~30 minutes per pound. Use the table below as a guideline.
|Turkey Size||Thaw Time Required|
|4-12 pounds||2-6 hours|
|12-16 pounds||6-8 hours|
|16-20 pounds||8-10 hours|
|20-24 pounds||10-12 hours|
This method requires you to have a microwave large enough to fit your turkey. The time needed to thaw a turkey varies by model and power level. Generally, thawing in the microwave requires ~6 minutes per pound.
Start by removing all the wrapping and placing the turkey on a microwave safe dish. Use the defrost function and enter the weight. While the turkey is defrosting, turn and flip it to ensure an even thaw. If the turkey starts to cook, let it rest for five minutes and resume defrosting. Once thawed, cook the turkey immediately and do not re-freeze.
No Time to Thaw
If you do not have time to properly thaw your turkey, you can simply cook it frozen. Cook times for a completely frozen turkey will be 50% longer than a thawed one. If you have some time, consider starting the thawing process as a partially thawed turkey requires less time to cook than a completely frozen one.
Roasting the Turkey
To roast your turkey, set your oven temperature to 325˚F. Place the turkey in a pan and use the table below as a general guideline for times. A turkey is ready to eat when its internal temperature reaches 165˚F. Check the temperature at the innermost part of the thigh, wing, and the thickest part of the breast. If you stuffed your turkey, check the temperature in the middle of the stuffing.
You can also use the turkey cook time calculator for approximate cook times.
Unstuffed Turkey Cook Times
|Turkey Size||Cook Time|
|4-8 pounds (breast)||1 1/2 – 3 1/4 hours|
|8-12 pounds||2 3/4 – 3 hours|
|12-14 pounds||3 – 3 3/4 hours|
|14-18 pounds||3 3/4 – 4 1/4 hours|
|18-20 pounds||4 1/4 – 4 1/2 hours|
|20-24 pounds||4 1/2 – 5 hours|
Stuffed Turkey Cook Times
|Turkey Size||Cook Time|
|6-8 pounds (breast)||2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours|
|8-12 pounds||3 – 3 1/2 hours|
|12-14 pounds||3 1/2 – 4 hours|
|14-18 pounds||4 – 4 1/4 hours|
|18-20 pounds||4 1/4 – 4 3/4 hours|
|20-24 pounds||4 3/4 – 5 1/4 hours|
If your turkey is completely frozen, cook times are approximately 50% longer. Partially frozen turkeys do not require as much time as completely frozen ones. Use a meat thermometer to ensure your turkey is ready to eat.
The keys to safely storing leftovers are time and portion sizes. Any turkey, stuffing, or gravy left at room temperature for longer than two hours should be discarded. If the temperature is above 90˚F, discard these items if left out for more than one hour.
When placing leftovers into the refrigerator, divide them into small portions and store them in shallow containers. Turkey, stuffing, and gravy leftovers should be consumed within four days.
The Bottom Line
Food safety is a deliberate process from the moment you buy your turkey, to the last bite you take. The simple, albeit, numerous steps outlined in this Holiday Turkey Guide go a long way in ensuring your Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Holiday plans are safe and delicious.
For more information about holiday food safety, visit the USDA and Nebraska Department of Agriculture websites below. You can also call the USDA meat and poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).
- Turkey from Farm to Table. (2013, August 5). Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/poultry-preparation/food-safety-of-turkeyfrom-farm-to-table/ct_index.
- Turkey Cooking Tips. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nda.nebraska.gov/promotion/poultry_egg/turkey_cooking.html.
- Okonta, C. (2019, December 3). SOS on Turkey Day – My Turkey Isn’t Ready, What Do I Do Now? Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2019/11/26/sos-turkey-day-my-turkey-isnt-ready-what-do-i-do-now.
- Gravely, M. (2017, February 21). How to Safely Thaw a Turkey. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/11/18/how-safely-thaw-turkey.
- USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-888-MPHotline. (n.d.).