Independent Watkins Consultant Lynne Mickley #044375N

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Safe Turkey Cooking Guide

Turkey recipes are designed to produce the perfect turkey: moist, tender meat, crispy golden skin, and excellent flavor. Cooking techniques vary; some good, some bad, and some that may send your guests running for the nearest bathroom within a few hours of eating. So don't ruin your Thanksgiving meal by accidentally poisoning your guests (intentional poisoning I can't be responsible for.) I've compiled the following tips from other websites, including the USDA:


  • Allow 1-1½ lbs. of turkey per person.

  • If buying a fresh (not frozen) turkey, buy it no more than two days in advance of cooking it.

  • Make sure you have ample space in the refrigerator for storing.

  • Make sure the original bag is not broken. You don't want raw juices to come into contact with other foods. Ewww.

  • Thawing

  • It is safe to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. Allow about 24 hours of defrost time per every 5 lbs. of turkey. (A 12 lb. turkey will take 2-2½ days to thaw completely.) Leave turkey in its original wrapper. Place breast-side up on a tray in the refrigerator. (Use a tray so raw juices don't contaminate anything in the fridge.)

  • It is safe to thaw it in cold water. Submerge the turkey in its wrapper breast-side down in a deep sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold. Allow 30 minutes per pound to thaw. (A 12 lb turkey will thaw in about 6 hours.)

  • It is safe to thaw it in the microwave (with caution.) Make sure your microwave is large enough to hold the turkey, especially if it has a rotating tray. Microwaves create hot spots, so defrosting is irregular. This may encourage bacterial growth.

  • Cook the turkey immediately after defrosting. Do not store for cooking later.

  • Don't refreeze uncooked turkey.

  • Don't thaw a turkey on the counter. Thawing it at room temperature increases the risk of bacteria growth, which can produce toxins that may not be destroyed in cooking.

  • Don't thaw in warm or hot water for the same reason.

  • Preparation

  • Use hot, soapy water to wash hands, utensils, sink and anything else that comes in contact with the raw turkey. Wash before and after working with raw turkey.

  • Remove turkey from bag. Remove the giblets and neck from inside the turkey. (Usually the neck is inside the cavity and the giblets are in a bag under a skin flap where the neck used to be.)

  • Rinse the neck and giblets and store covered in the refrigerator for later use.

  • Rinse turkey inside and out under cold running water.

  • Marinate turkey in the fridge, not the counter.

  • Stuffing

  • The safest way to cook the stuffing is separate from the turkey. But whether inside the turkey or in a baking dish, stuffing must reach a temperature of 165°F to be safely cooked.

  • If you're going to stuff the turkey, use a meat thermometer to ensure the stuffing reaches at least 165°F. (The turkey must reach 180° F.)

  • Prepare vegetables, bread, and any dry ingredients in advance to save time.

  • Use only cooked meats and seafood. Sauté the vegetables. Use pasteurized egg products instead of raw eggs.

  • Don't add the moist ingredients to the dry until just before stuffing the turkey. Moist ingredients such as broth, eggs, and meat could cause illness if not properly cooked and stored.

  • Don't stuff the turkey in advance to save time.

  • Use about ½ to ¾ cups stuffing per pound of turkey.

  • Don't overstuff the turkey. Stuffing will expand when cooking; if the cavity is overstuffed, the temperature may not reach a high enough temperature to kill any bacteria. So stuff loosely to ensure safe, even cooking.

  • You can stuff both the neck and body cavities.

  • Return legs to original tucked position.

  • Place turkey in oven immediately after adding stuffing.

  • Place extra stuffing in a greased pan or casserole dish and bake separately.

  • Don't stuff turkeys that will be grilled, smoked, or fast-cooked (such as the aluminum foil method mentioned below.)

  • Cook stuffing to a minimum temperature of 165°F. (Never cook a turkey at any temperature lower than 325°F.)

  • The stuffing temperature will rise a few degrees after the turkey is removed from the oven. If the center of the stuffing did not reach 165°F while cooking or even after the stand time, return the turkey to the oven and continue cooking.

  • Immediately remove stuffing from turkey after cooking is complete. Transfer stuffing to a separate dish.

  • Store leftover stuffing in the refrigerator and use within 1 to 2 days. Reheat leftover stuffing to 165°F before serving.

  • Roasting

  • Never cook a turkey at anything less than 325°F. Some recipes call for cooking at a lower temperature for 12 or more hours. Bad idea.

  • Buy and use a meat thermometer, even if the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator. There are basically two kinds of meat thermometers; instant read and standard. An instant read thermometer is often plastic and cannot be used in the oven. Instead, it reads the internal temperature of the meat within 15 seconds of being inserted. A standard meat thermometer is metal, and is intended for use in the oven while the meat is cooking. Choose which kind suits you best and read the manufacturer's directions before use.

  • Dark meat takes longer to cook, so always insert the thermometer in the thigh. The area closest to the body of the turkey--away from the thigh bone--is the thickest part.

  • The turkey's internal temperature must reach 180°F for safety and doneness. Using a meat thermometer will ensure the correct internal temperature is reached and will prevent overcooking.

  • Use an oven roasting pan large enough for the turkey, one that is about 2-2½ inches deep and has a rack in the bottom.

  • Cover turkey loosely with a tent of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Remove about 1-1½ hours before end of cooking time.

  • Cooking Bags. It is safe to use a cooking bag. However, never use garbage bags, brown paper sacks, or other non-food grade materials for cooking. Chemicals and colors may leach into the food. Roast the turkey at 350°F. To prevent bursting, shake a tablespoon of flour in the empty bag and cut slits in it to allow steam to escape. Make sure the bag doesn't hang over the sides of the roasting pan, and allow ample space for the bag to expand during cooking so it doesn't touch the top or sides of the oven or it will melt.

  • Aluminum Foil-Wrapped. You may also wrap the entire turkey in aluminum foil for cooking. Roast it at 450°F to ensure safety. This method steams the turkey in its own juices, and produces a moist bird with a light golden, non-crisp skin. The cooking time is reduced due to higher temperatures and the trapped steam inside the foil. Brush the turkey with Watkins Original Grapeseed Oil. Place the turkey lengthwise in the middle of a large piece of 18-inch-wide heavy-duty aluminum foil that is 3 times longer than the turkey. Place the turkey breast side up and fold the foil over it, overlapping the turkey. Insert the meat thermometer through the foil into the thickest part of the thigh. Place it in a shallow roasting pan. Bring the sides of foil up around the turkey, but don't make an airtight seal. Open the foil during the last 30 minutes of cooking to brown the skin. Be careful when opening the foil, since broth may accumulate in it. This method reduces the cooking time by ½-1 hour compared to other roasting methods.

  • Counter-Top Roaster. You may also use a counter-top roaster. Roast the turkey with the lid on, and avoid peeking at it too much, since this will let the heat and moisture escape.

  • Start checking for doneness about 30-45 minutes before the recommended cooking time (see chart below.)

  • Pierce the thigh muscle; the juices should be clear, not reddish pink.

  • Allow the turkey to sit for at least 20 minutes after cooking so that the natural juices will be redistribute. This makes it moister, and makes for easier carving.

  • Approximate Cooking Times in 325°F Oven

    Turkey Size



    6 to 12 pounds

    2¾ to 3 hours

    3 to 3½ hours

    12 to 14 pounds

    3 to 3¾ hours

    3½ to 4 hours

    14 to 18 pounds

    3¾ to 4¼ hours

    4 to 4¼ hours

    18 to 20 pounds

    4¼ to 4½ hours

    4¼ to 4¾ hours

    20 to 24 pounds

    4½ to 5 hours

    4¾ to 5¼ hours

    Browning Techniques

  • Rub skin with oil prior to cooking.

  • If skin is browning too quickly, cover with aluminum foil during last hour of cooking time.

  • If skin isn't as brown as you'd like, but the turkey is done or nearly done, turn the oven up to 400°F. Cook for 20-25 minutes.

  • Twist wing tips and tuck behind turkey to prevent them from getting too crispy.


  • Putting the Cooked Turkey on Hold

  • If the turkey is done ahead of schedule, it is safe to turn the oven down to 200°F and leave it in there.

  • Cover the turkey to prevent it from drying out.

  • Make sure the internal temperature of the turkey doesn't dip below 140°F during holding time.


  • After the Meal

  • Before waddling off to take a nap, put in the effort to deal with leftovers.

  • Don't leave stuffing and other leftovers out for more than 2 hours. Bacteria that cause food poisoning can multiply to undesirable levels on perishable foods left at room temperature for longer than that. So refrigerate leftovers immediately following the meal.

  • Slice remaining turkey to cut into small pieces.

  • Refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers.

  • Divide large quantities into smaller portions and stored separately. It will chill faster that way, keeping it safer and fresher.

  • Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

  • Leftover turkey can be frozen for later use. Freeze it while it's still fresh. (Don't let it sit for 4 days first!)

  • Gravy will keep in the fridge for 1-2 days. It should be reheated to a boil.

  • Leftovers should be thoroughly reheated to 165° F.


  • For More Information

    For more information, you can reach USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at: 1-888-MPHotline (1-800-674-6854), Monday through Friday, from 10 am to 4 pm Eastern Time. Information is available in English and Spanish.

    E-mail inquiries may be directed to

    Or go to "Ask Karen," FSIS' Web-based automated response system - available 24/7.

    More information on safe turkey handling can also be accessed on the FSIS Web site.

    The FSIS Web site also contains information about seasonal food safety.


    For further information about food safety, visit A Guide For Consumers About Food Safety

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