How to Safely Cook Turkey

Pamela Schmutz
Home & Garden Information Center

Food safety is important when cooking a turkey. Improperly cooked turkey could make your family sick. Food safety practices must be followed at each step in the process of thawing, preparing, cooking and storing turkey to avoid foodborne illness. For step-by-step instructions on how to roast, smoke, fry or microwave a turkey, see HGIC 3560, How to Cook Turkey.  Follow these tips to keep your family safe at the Thanksgiving meal or any time you prepare turkey.

  • There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey—in the refrigerator, in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes, or in a microwave oven. It is never safe to thaw a turkey at room temperature.
  • Rinsing the turkey before cooking is no longer recommended because the rinse water could contaminate the counter and other surfaces surrounding the sink. Cooking the turkey to a safe temperature—165 °F or hotter— kills bacteria on the surface of the turkey.
  • Wash hands, utensils, sink and everything that has been in contact with the raw turkey. After washing, sanitize the counter, sinks and any containers or trays that have been used with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of warm, not hot, water.
  • If cooking a stuffed turkey, the stuffing itself must reach a temperature of 165 °F to be safe. Use only cooked ingredients that have been stored in the refrigerator, if prepared in advance. Use pasteurized liquid eggs rather than raw shell eggs.
  • Never brown or partially cook a turkey to finish cooking later.
  • Cooking overnight at a low setting (200 to 250 °F) is unsafe. Bacteria can easily grow under these conditions. Roast a turkey in a preheated oven set at 325 °F
  • A turkey is safely cooked when the internal temperature is at least 165 °F when checked with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature (even if the turkey has a “pop-up” indicator) in the innermost part of the thigh and wing as well as in the thickest part of the breast. It is perfectly safe to cook the turkey to a higher temperature for taste or texture preferences.
  • Within two hours after cooking, remove stuffing from turkey and carve the meat off the bones. Store in a refrigerator or freezer. Gravy, stuffing and meat must be stored separately from each other. Gravy can be stored in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. Turkey and stuffing can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 to four days. Freeze for longer storage.

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