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Talking Turkey

How to handle your holiday bird

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If you get nervous at the very thought of cooking a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are many resources available so we can prepare our feasts without fear of giving Auntie May food poisoning, or bringing a burnt offering to the table. So long as you follow basic food-safety rules, monitor the turkey while it’s cooking and have a timetable for preparing the rest of the meal, chances are your Turkey Day will go off without a hitch. Here are some helpful tips on how to handle your turkey:

Thawing a Frozen Turkey

If you are buying a frozen turkey, allow plenty of time for it to defrost. You can defrost the turkey in the refrigerator or in cold water. Never defrost a turkey at room temperature.
  • Defrosting the bird in the refrigerator is the safest method, and also requires the least maintenance. Leave the turkey in its original wrapping and place it in a baking pan, breast side up. Allow 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey.
  • If you choose to use the cold water method, put the turkey, still in its original wrapping, in a large sealed bag to prevent contamination. Place the turkey in a basin or bath and cover with cold water. Change the water completely every 30 minutes. You should allow 30 minutes of thawing per pound. Undoubtedly this is a faster (though labor-intensive) method, but there is a risk of bacterial growth near the surface of the bird as the interior continues to thaw. Once thawed this way, the turkey should be cooked immediately.

Handling a Raw Turkey

Make sure you use a separate cutting board and utensils for the turkey to avoid contaminating other foods. Be sure to wash your hands with hot, soapy water before touching anything else in the kitchen. Wash the cutting boards and utensils used for the turkey as soon as you are done with them. Use paper towels instead of cloths for clean up wherever possible.

Stuffing the Turkey

If you choose to stuff the turkey rather than cook it separately, stuff the bird just before it goes into the oven. Be sure to remove the giblets and rinse the turkey in and out with cold water first. Place the stuffing loosely into the turkey’s cavity. Remember, you will need to allow a longer cooking time if the bird is stuffed.

Cooking the Turkey

People have different ideas about how to cook a turkey. So long as you roast the bird at a minimum of 325 degrees until the thickest part of the inner thigh registers 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, you will be fine. The breast meat should register 170 degrees, and if the bird is stuffed, the stuffing must reach 165 degrees. See below for approximate cooking times.

Out of the Oven

Once out of the oven, allow the turkey to rest for at least 15-20 minutes to allow the juices to settle. The temperature of the bird will continue to rise. After carving the turkey, allow leftovers to cool slightly (but no more than an hour), then place in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator. Store leftover stuffing separately. Use within three days.

Finally, for those moments of panic on the day, there is plenty of help available from various turkey hotlines.

Turkey Cooking Times

Weight Unstuffed Stuffed
8-12 pounds 2 3/4 - 3 hours 3 - 3 1/2 hours
12-14 pounds 3 - 3 3/4 hours 3 1/2 - 4 hours
14-18 pounds 3 3/4 - 4 1/4 hours 4 - 4 1/4 hours
18-20 pounds 4 1/4 - 4 1/2 hours 4 1/4 - 4 3/4 hours
20-24 pounds 4 1/2 - 5 hours 4 3/4 - 5 1/4 hours
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