Holiday Food Safety Tips - Turkey

Holiday Food Safety Tips --Turkey

Throughout the holidays, many people enjoy a traditional turkey dinner.  A few guidelines and steps to follow when preparing a turkey dinner will help ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the meal, and will greatly reduce the chances of a foodborne illness becoming part of your holiday memories.

PlanningThawing the Turkey  |  Preparing the Turkey

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Plan ahead ? Plan your menu before the holiday. Shopping early will ease the countdown tension for your holiday meal. Ask these questions to help plan your meal.  Do you have enough space to store a frozen bird if purchased in advance; if not, when should you purchase a turkey? What size bird do you need to buy?

When to purchase ? If you choose to buy a frozen bird you may do so at any time, but make sure you have adequate storage space in your freezer. If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure you purchase it only 1-2 days before cooking. Do not buy a prestuffed fresh turkey.

What size Turkey do you need ? Use the following chart as a helpful guide:

Whole bird

1 pound per person

Boneless breast of turkey

1/2 pound per person

Breast of turkey

3/4 pound per person

Prestuffed frozen turkey

1 1/4 pounds per person ? keep frozen until ready to cook

Thawing the Turkey

In refrigerator ? Place frozen bird in original wrapper in the refrigerator (40 °F) ? be sure to place the turkey in a pan to prevent any of the juices from dripping onto other surfaces or foods in the refrigerator.  Allow a thawing time of approximately 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey. After thawing, keep turkey refrigerated for only 1-2 days, or use this chart to help you countdown to the holiday:

Size of Turkey Thawing Time in the Refrigerator

8 to12 pounds

1 to 2 days

12 to16 pounds

2 to 3 days

16 to 20 pounds

3 to 4 days

20 to 24 pounds

4 to 5 days

In cold water ? If you forget to thaw the turkey or don?t have room in the refrigerator for thawing, do not worry. You can also defrost the turkey by submerging it in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. The following times are suggested for thawing turkey in water:

Size of Turkey Hours to Defrost in Cold Water

8 to 12 pounds

4 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


Preparing the Turkey

The day before you will be serving your turkey
 Make sure you have all the ingredients you need to prepare your holiday meal. Check to make sure you have all the equipment you will need, including a roasting pan large enough to hold your turkey and a meat thermometer. The turkey may be rinsed in cold water the night before and re-wrapped for roasting the next day if you wish. Wet and dry stuffing ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated separately. This may also be done on the day of your celebration. Mix ingredients just before placing the stuffing inside the turkey cavity or into a casserole dish.

Day of celebration
If you choose to stuff your turkey, stuff loosely. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Place stuffed turkey in oven immediately. You may also cook the stuffing outside the bird in a casserole.

The next two tables show approximate cooking times for cooking your turkey, the first for an unstuffed bird, and the second for a stuffed bird in an oven at 325 °F.  These times are approximate:


Size of Turkey Hours to Prepare

8 to 12 pounds

2 3/4 to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds

3 to 3 3/4 hours

14 to 18 pounds

3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours

18 to 20 pounds

4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours

20 to 24 pounds

4 1/2 to 5 hours



Size of Turkey Hours to Prepare

8 to 12 pounds

3 to 3 1/2 hours

12 to 14 pounds

3 1/2 to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds

4 to 4 1/4 hours

18 to 20 pounds

4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours

20 to 24 pounds

4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours


Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey. A good indication of the turkey being cooked thoroughly is when the temperature of the bird (as measured in the thigh) has reached 180 °F.  The stuffing,  whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate dish, should reach 165 °F. 

When turkey is removed from the oven, let it stand 20 minutes. Remove stuffing and carve turkey.

Storing Leftovers

Cut the turkey into small pieces; refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days; gravy within 1-2 days; or freeze these foods. Reheat thoroughly to a temperature of 165 °F or until hot and steaming.

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Last Revised: October 27, 2014