Food Safety Tips for Your T-Day Turkey

Salmonella listeria and E coli are food-borne illnesses that could send all of your guests home with food poisoning

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) It's stressful to be the person responsible for cooking the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal: the turkey. It's got to be tasty, but more importantly, it has to be cooked safely.

All sorts of bad things can happen with an improperly cooked turkey, and we're not just talking about using the right brining method. Salmonella, listeria, and E.coli are food-borne illnesses that could send all of your guests home with food poisoning instead of in a happy food coma.

A few tips from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) can help you make sure that your turkey is safe to serve.

"Safely cook your turkey."

Many people cooking their first turkey are confused about how long to thaw and how long to cook the turkey. It's important to know, because the times vary based on how big your bird is.

You should plan to buy a pound of turkey for each person attending. So if you're having ten guests, shoot for a ten pound turkey.

Buy your frozen turkey at least few days before Thanksgiving, because it needs time to thaw out. You can thaw a turkey three ways: In a refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.

If you go the fridge route, keep the temperature below 40 degrees, and allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds worth of bird.

Here are some guidelines:

  • A 4lb-12lb turkey should thaw for 1-3 days.
  • A 12lb-16lb turkey should thaw for 3-4 days.
  • A 16lb-20lb turkey should thaw for 4-5 days.
  • A 20lb-24lb turkey should thaw for 5-6 days.

Cold water is a quicker method. Make sure your turkey is still in leak-proof packaging and that it is fully submerged in the water. The water should be changed every half hour.

The rule of thumb is 30 minutes per pound:

  • A 4lb-12lb turkey should thaw for 2-6 hours.
  • A 12lb-16lb turkey should thaw for 6-8 hours.
  • A 16lb-20lb turkey should thaw for 8-10 hours.
  • A 20lb-24lb turkey should thaw for 10-12 hours.

Thawing in the microwave is a last minute resort. Before you rely on this method, make sure your turkey fits in your microwave.

How long it will take to thaw per pound depends upon the power of the microwave – check your owner's manual. After it's thawed, cook it in the oven immediately and do not refrigerate it.

When you're preparing the turkey for cooking, follow the same precautions as you do for cooking meat the rest of the year. Wash utensils, surfaces and hands immediately after working with the turkey to avoid cross contamination with other foods.

Stuffing is something that's unique to turkey. We all have a vision of perfectly cooked stuffing pouring out of the bird.

But stuffing should not be cooked inside the turkey. Use a casserole dish, and if you must stuff it in the turkey, make sure it is fully cooked before.

The center of the stuffing must be at least 165 degrees, which you can check with a food thermometer. The stuffing can cause foodborne illness just as easily as the turkey itself.

But when you talk about cooking the turkey, it must be in an oven or barbeque reaching at least 325 degrees. The turkey is safe to eat when it has an internal temperature of 165.

When you check for the temperature, place your thermometer in the thickest part of the breast, and also between the thigh and wing.

Time tables for cooking vary based on how big your turkey is and whether you have put the stuffing inside of it or not. Stuffed turkeys take longer to cook.

When it comes to leftovers, which some people believe to be the best part of Thanksgiving, you can refrigerate turkey, stuffing, and gravy for 3 to 4 days, or freeze for 2 to 6 months.

But there are some leftovers you may not want to eat, if they've been left out for 2 hours without being refrigerated. If you live in hotter climates or a hot house in temperatures over 90 degrees, you only get a one hour grace period.

So wrap up your turkey as soon as you're done with the meal, and you can have Thanksgiving for days!

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 20, 2012
Last Updated:
November 23, 2012