Holiday Food Safety Tips - Turkey

Many people enjoy a traditional turkey dinner during the holidays. Following a few guidelines when preparing a turkey dinner will help ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the meal, and greatly reduce the chances that a foodborne illness becomes part of your holiday memories.


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 choose a fresh turkey, buy 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:

Type of Turkey Amount

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

Thawing it in the refrigerator. Place frozen bird in its original wrapper in the refrigerator (40° F) 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 for each 5 pounds of turkey. (Example: A 10-pound turkey would need 48 hours in the refrigerator to thaw.)

After the turkey thaws, keep it refrigerated no longer than 1-2 days before cooking. Or use this chart to help you count down to the holiday:

Size of Turkey Thawing Time in the Refrigerator

8 to 12 pounds

1 to 2 days

12 to 16 pounds

2 to 3 days

16 to 20 pounds

3 to 4 days

20 to 24 pounds

4 to 5 days

Thawing it in cold water.  If you forget to thaw the turkey or don't have room in the refrigerator for thawing, don't worry. You can also defrost the turkey by submerging it in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes. Using this thawing method, 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 rewrapped 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 stuffing 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 in an oven set at 325° F. The first table shows times for an unstuffed bird, and the second for a stuffed bird. Times listed are approximate.

Time to cook: Unstuffed turkey

Size of Turkey Time in the Oven

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

Time to cook: Stuffed turkey

Size of Turkey Time in the Oven

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

When is the turkey done?

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. 

After removing the turkey from the oven, let it stand 20 minutes. Remove stuffing and carve turkey.

Storing Leftovers

Cut the leftover 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.

Last Revised: November 19, 2015