Turkey Safety

Should I Buy a Fresh or Frozen Turkey?

There is no significant difference in quality between a fresh or a frozen turkey; the choice is based on personal preference. There are, however, some important things to look for when shopping for your turkey:

  • An inspection mark on the label lets you know the turkey has been inspected and that it is safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled. Most turkeys - and other meat and poultry products - are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Another symbol you may find is a USDA grade mark - usually grade A. Turkeys that are grade A have a well developed layer of fat in the skin, and are practically free from pinfeathers, bruises, cuts, tears on the breast and legs, and broken bones.
  • Pay attention to the age category on the label. The younger the turkey, the more tender and mild the flavor will be. Most turkeys sold in grocery stores are young and will be labeled "young turkey" (usually four to six months of age). A young turkey may also be labeled "fryer-roaster turkey" (usually under 16 weeks of age).
  • The sex designation of "hen" or "tom" is optional on the label, and is an indication of size rather than the tenderness of a turkey.
  • The sell by date is the last day the turkey should be sold. It will maintain optimal quality and safety for one or two days after this date. Once you get your fresh turkey home, refrigerate it right away at 40°F or below, and prepare it within 48 hours.

How Should I Store A Frozen Turkey?

If you choose a frozen turkey, look for one that frozen solid. Many frozen turkeys are now available pre-basted; some are pre-stuffed. A whole frozen turkey - pre-stuffed or unstuffed - can be stored in your home freezer at 0°F or below for up to one year without loss of quality. Keep a pre-stuffed turkey in the freezer until you are ready to cook it. It should NOT be thawed, because bacteria can develop in the stuffing while the turkey thaws. Frozen whole turkeys do not need to be re-wrapped for freezer storage unless the packaging has been opened or is punctured or torn.

Defrost the turkey in its original wrapper on a tray in the refrigerator 24 hours for each five pounds. Never thaw a turkey at room temperature. You may also place the wrapped turkey in the sink and cover it completely with cold water. This method requires about 30 minutes per pound. If the wrapping is torn, place the turkey in another plastic bag, close securely, and then place in water. The National Turkey Federation recommends every 30 minutes as a rule of thumb. See the table below for details.

How Long Should I Thaw a Frozen Turkey?

Size of Turkey Thawing in the refrigerator Thawing in cold water
8 - 12 pounds  1 to 2 days 4 to 6 hours
12 - 16 pounds  2 to 3 days 6 to 8 hours
16 - 20 pounds 3 to 4 days 8 to 10 hours
20 - 24 pounds 4 to 5 days 10 to 12 hours

Why can't I just thaw my turkey at room temperature?

Room temperatures fall within the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F that promotes active growth of bacteria. If left on a kitchen counter, a frozen turkey will thaw from the outside in. As its surface warms, bacteria multiply. In the time it takes for the entire turkey to thaw, the surface bacteria can multiply to dangerous levels. Cooking may not destroy all bacteria. Some foodborne bacteria produce toxins that withstand heat.

How Should I Store a Fresh Turkey?

The USDA recommends that, for optimal safety, you should buy a fresh turkey within one or two days of when you plan to serve it. Fresh turkeys, like other fresh meat and poultry, are highly perishable. You need to be careful when purchasing and storing them to avoid spoilage. If you buy one too far in advance, it may start to spoil in your refrigerator before you're ready to cook it.

How Do I Prepare the Turkey for the Oven?

Once your turkey thaws, it requires little preparation before cooking. Remove the neck and giblets from the neck and/or body cavities. Wash the inside and outside of the turkey and the giblets in cold water and drain well. To prevent the spread of bacteria, wash your hands, utensils and sink with hot, soapy water after they have come in contact with the raw turkey.

How Should I Stuff the Turkey?

If you don't have much time, you may want to bake your stuffing in a greased, covered casserole during the last hour while the turkey roasts. An unstuffed turkey takes less time to cook than one that is stuffed. Although it may seem like a good idea to save time by stuffing your turkey in advance, that's inviting trouble. Harmful bacteria can multiply in the stuffing and cause foodborne illness. Stuff the turkey just before you're ready to roast it.

Spoon your stuffing into the bird loosely so there's room for it to expand as it cooks. You can fit one to two cups of stuffing for every pound of meat.

What Is the Best Way to Roast the Turkey?

Place the turkey breast side up on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Do not add water. Before placing the turkey in the oven, you may want to brush it with cooking oil, melted butter or margarine, although this is not necessary. Cover the turkey with a loose tent of heavy duty aluminum foil. This prevents overbrowning, allows for maximum heat circulation, keeps the turkey moist, and reduces oven splatter.

Insert a meat thermometer through the foil into the thickest part of the thigh muscle without touching the bone. The inner thigh is the area that heats most slowly.

To brown the turkey, remove the foil tent 20 to 30 minutes before roasting is finished, and continue cooking until the thermometer registers 185°F. Basting is usually not necessary during roasting since it cannot penetrate the turkey.

Plan the roasting time for a large bird so it will be done about 20 minutes before serving. Allowing the turkey to stand, covered loosely with aluminum foil, makes the meat easier to carve and juicier.

This year there are frozen turkeys available at a grocery store already stuffed. They should be safe when cooked from the frozen state, but follow the manufacturer's directions carefully.

How Do I Test for Doneness?

The turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180°F to 185°F in the inner thigh of whole turkeys and in the center of the thickest part of turkey pieces. Stuffing temperature should reach at least 165°F.

To check the stuffing, insert the thermometer through the body cavity into the thickest part of the stuffing and leave it for 5 minutes. The stuffing temperature will rise a few degrees after the turkey is removed from the oven.

Another method for testing doneness is to press the fleshy part of the thigh with protected fingers. If the meat feels soft, or if the leg moves up and down easily and the hip joint gives readily or breaks, the turkey is done.

Doneness can also be detected by inserting a long-tined fork into the thickest area of the inner thigh. If the juices run clear, not pink, the turkey is done.

As soon as your turkey is completely cooked, you should remove all the stuffing from the cavities. Harmful bacteria is more likely to grow in the stuffing if it sits in the bird after cooking. If you do not need all the stuffing for first servings, you can put the remaining stuffing in the oven at 200°F to keep hot until you need it.

Transfer the cooked turkey from the roasting pan to a heated platter for easy carving. Let it stand 15 minutes before you carve it.

Store leftover turkey and stuffing separately in shallow containers (for quick cooling) in the refrigerator.

How Should I Store Leftovers?

From the time you remove it from the oven, you have approximately two hours to serve and refrigerate or freeze the leftover turkey, stuffing, and gravy. Bacteria, like salmonella, can multiply to undesirable levels on perishable food left at room temperature longer than two hours.

Date packages before storing, and always use the oldest first. Turkey parts have a shorter freezer-life than do whole turkeys because more surface area is exposed, providing a greater opportunity for microbial contamination during processing and packaging. For longer storage, package items in plastic storage containers with tight-fitting lids or heavy-duty aluminum foil, then freeze them. Proper wrapping will prevent "freezer burn" - white dried-out patches on the surface of food that make it tough and tasteless. Frozen turkey, stuffing, and gravy should be used within 1 month.

Additional Resource: Butterball's Picture-Perfect Turkey How To's