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Thanksgiving Dinner Safety

The last thing you need with a house full of relatives is food poisoning or other holiday disasters. With a little preparation, your Thanksgiving feast can be fun, safe event. Remember that turkeys can carry salmonella and other harmful bacteria. Be sure to wash your hands, utensils and other surfaces that come into contact with raw poultry to prevent contamination.

Thawing your turkey

Some cooks prefer a “fresh” (not frozen) turkey, but for those of us who opt for a frozen bird, it’s important to remember that as soon as a turkey begins to thaw, bacteria can begin to grow. Never let a frozen turkey thaw out at room temperature. Instead, follow the USDA recommendations below:

Refrigerator thawing

This is the longest method, so it won’t work for last-minute shoppers. Be sure to allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below. It’s important to place the turkey in a container to prevent dripping juices from contaminating other foods. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking.

Refrigerator thawing times for a whole turkey:
4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days

Cold water thawing

First, make sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent water absorption. Next, submerge the wrapped turkey in cold (never hot) tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed to prevent it from getting too warm. A turkey thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately.

Cold Water Thawing Times
4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours

Safe Roasting

Turkey should be roasted, breast-side up in an oven set at a minimum temperature of 325° F. The color of cooked poultry is not a sign of its safety. The only way to know for sure if your turkey has been cooked to a safe temperature is by using a meat thermometer. The internal temperature must reach 165° in the breast, or 175° to 180° in the thigh. If the bird is stuffed, be sure the center of the stuffing registers 165°.


The safest way to cook your stuffing is separately in a casserole dish. If you prefer your stuffing in the bird, wait to mix the wet ingredients just before stuffing and stuff loosely – tightly packed stuffing cannot expand and cook properly. When trussing your bird, be careful not to cut yourself on the sharp skewers, as they may carry bacteria from the raw poultry. Finally, don’t forget, additional time is required for stuffed turkeys to reach a safe minimum internal temperature.

Approximate Cooking Times

(325 °F oven temperature)

Unstuffed (time in hours)
4 to 6 lb. breast — 1 1/2 to 2 1/4
6 to 8 lb. breast — 2 1/4 to 3 1/4
8 to 12 lbs. — 2 3/4 to 3
12 to 14 lbs. — 3 to 3 3/4
14 to 18 lbs. — 3 3/4 to 4 1/4
18 to 20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 1/2
20 to 24 lbs. — 4 1/2 to 5

Stuffed (time in hours)
8 to 12 lbs. — 3 to 3 1/2
12 to 14 lbs. — 3 1/2 to 4
14 to 18 lbs. — 4 to 4 1/4
18 to 20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 3/4
20 to 24 lbs. — 4 3/4 to 5 1/4

Deep Fat Frying a Turkey

Each year, there seems to be at least one story on the news about a disastrous attempt at deep frying a turkey. The USDA offers the following guidelines:

A whole turkey can be successfully cooked by the deep fat frying method provided the turkey is not stuffed and has been completely thawed. The turkey should be 12 pounds or less in size.

Oil Safety

Select a cooking vessel large enough to completely submerge the turkey in oil without it spilling over. The oil should cover the turkey by 1 to 2 inches. To determine the amount of oil needed, do a preliminary test using water. Place the turkey in the cooking utensil and add water to cover. Then remove the turkey and measure the amount of water. This is the amount of oil needed. (Afterwards, be sure to pat the turkey dry, as placing water into hot oil will cause it to spatter.)

Select a safe location outdoors for deep fat frying a turkey

Heat the cooking oil to 350 °F. Slowly and carefully, lower the turkey into the hot oil. Monitor the temperature of the oil with a thermometer constantly during cooking. Never leave the hot oil unattended. Allow approximately 3 to 5 minutes per pound cooking time.

Checking for doneness

Remove turkey from the oil and drain oil from the cavity. Check the temperature of turkey with a food thermometer. The turkey is safely cooked when the food thermometer reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

If the turkey is not done, immediately return the turkey to the hot oil for additional cooking. When the turkey is done, remove it from the oil and place it on a sturdy tray lined with paper towels. The skin can be golden to dark brown to almost black. Let it rest about 20 minutes before carving.

Allow the used oil to cool before pouring it into containers for refrigerator storage. The oil can be reused if it is strained, covered, and used within a month.


After your fabulous feast, be sure to store leftovers properly to prevent food poisoning. Leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen within 2 hours to prevent bacterial growth.

Large quantities should be divided into smaller portions and stored in several small or shallow covered containers – food in small amounts will get cold more quickly. The temperature of the refrigerator should be 40° F or slightly below.

Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days. Stuffing and gravy should be used within 1 or 2 days. Reheat leftover gravy to a rolling boil or 165 ° F before serving. For longer storage, package leftovers in freezer paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil and freeze them.


For a complete guide to food safety and more tips on holiday food preparation, visit www.foodsafety.gov.