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Released: November 08, 2002

Food Safety Experts Field Questions on Turkey Dinners

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Common food safety questions can sometimes go unaddressed in the rush of holiday meal preparations. When time is short and the table waits to be filled, holiday cooks sometimes compromise safety standards.

"Each year, millions of people suffer from foodborne illness," said Karen Penner, Kansas State University Research and Extension food scientist. "While symptoms often are confused with flu-like symptoms, thousands of people die each year unnecessarily. Many of these mistakes can be eliminated by cooking food to the recommended internal temperatures."

Penner and Karen Blakeslee, K-State Research and Extension rapid response coordinator, tackle some of the questions on preparing the centerpiece of most holiday meals: the turkey.

How do I choose a turkey?

When choosing a whole turkey, plan on one pound per person; if choosing a turkey breast with a bone, plan on three-fourths pound per person; if choosing a boneless turkey breast, plan on one-half pound per person.

"Fresh and frozen turkeys are readily available, but if a fresh turkey is preferred, it may be necessary to order it in advance," Blakeslee said. "Plan to pick up a fresh turkey 1-2 days before you are planning to cook it. If a frozen turkey has soft spots or appears partially thawed, find another."

Do I need to wash the turkey before cooking?

Once thawed, a turkey should be washed with cool water both inside and out. Giblets and other turkey parts should be removed and reserved for another purpose.

Wash hands in hot soapy water each time before and after handling raw and also cooked poultry. Keep utensils used with raw foods separate from utensils used with cooked foods, Blakeslee said.

How should a turkey be thawed?

"To thaw a frozen turkey, place the turkey, still in its original wrapper, in a baking pan or on a baking sheet with a lip to prevent drips in the refrigerator at 40 F or lower," she said. "Allow 24 hours of thawing time for each five pounds of turkey."

For example, a 12- to 16-pound turkey should thaw in the refrigerator in 2-3 days. Once thawed, a frozen turkey should not be refrozen before cooking, Penner said.

Along with other meat and poultry products, turkeys should not be thawed at room temperature on the counter, in the basement, garage or on the back porch.

Can a turkey be thawed in a microwave?

Smaller turkeys can be thawed in the microwave. Follow the oven manufacturer’s instructions.

"Be sure to remove metal closures, such as the ‘hock lock,’ that holds legs together," Penner said. Poultry thawed in a microwave needs to be cooked immediately, since micro-thawing begins the cooking process.

What happens if I forget to thaw the turkey?

While smaller turkeys can be microwave thawed, a larger turkey can be thawed using the cold-water method.

"Submerge the still-frozen turkey in cold water in the kitchen sink or a large tub," she said. "Change the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound to thaw a turkey, or about six to eight hours to thaw a 12-to 16-pound turkey."

Should I bake the stuffing in the turkey?

Families who still prefer to cook dressing in a turkey cavity are encouraged to be cautious. Food safety researchers recommend that the safest way to prepare dressing is in a casserole dish in the oven or a pan on a surface unit.

"A turkey cavity is moist and dark, and making it an appealing host for potentially harmful bacteria," Blakeslee said. "The size of the cavity in larger birds makes it difficult to check end-point cooking temperature to make sure the dressing is fully cooked and safe to eat." It also takes a longer time for the inner cavity to heat up when the turkey is stuffed.

When baked in a covered casserole, stuffing should stay moist and taste similar to stuffing baked in the turkey cavity. A stuffed turkey also takes about 45 minutes longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey.

How long will it take to roast a turkey?

At 325 F, which is recommended for slow-roasting a turkey, allow 15 to 20 minutes per pound for an unstuffed turkey.

"Recommended cooking times may be included on food labels, but these are only guidelines," Penner said. "Oven calibration and oven rack positions also affect cooking time."

The size and depth of the baking pan affects the heat circulating around the turkey as it cooks. Dark roasting pans usually cook faster than shiny metals. Lids will speed cooking, while aluminum foil tents usually slow cooking. Leaving the lid off results in more of a roasted, rather than steamed, flavor.

How can I tell when the turkey is done?

Many people use visual checks for doneness, but only a food thermometer can provide the assurance that meat is cooked adequately for safety, Penner said.

To check a turkey, insert a food thermometer in the innermost portion of the thigh. When the thermometer registers 180 degrees F, the turkey should be cooked.

Checking the temperature in more than one place is desirable, however the temperature in the thigh is the most reliable test of overall doneness. Juices should be clear.

"If you stuff the bird, it is essential to check internal temperatures of both the meat and the stuffing," Penner said. The recommended internal temperature for stuffing is 165 F.

Is using a pop-up timer included with the turkey enough?

"Pop-up timers included with many turkeys are not sufficient for determining turkey doneness," Penner said. "A pop-up timer only checks the temperature in one area. The depth of the probe on pop up timers also is not adequate for larger birds."

Food thermometers can be purchased at hardware, kitchenware stores and supermarkets for less than $10.

What’s the best way to store leftovers?

Discard perishable cooked foods standing out more than two hours. Remove remaining turkey from the carcass by cutting the meat into smaller pieces and placing the pieces in a shallow pan to speed the cooling and protect foods from potentially harmful bacteria. Wrap, label and freeze leftovers to be used at a later date, Penner said. Cover leftovers stored in the refrigerator and use by the following dates:

* Serve leftover cooked turkey within 3-4 days. Serve the turkey hot or cold.

* Serve leftover stuffing within 3-4 days; reheat leftover stuffing to 165 F before serving.

* Serve leftover gravy within 1-2 days; reheat leftover gravy to 165 F before serving.

For more information on food safety, contact the local Extension office or visit the K-State Research and Extension food safety Website at .


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Lucas Shivers, Communications Assistant
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Karen Blakeslee is at 785-532-1673, Karen Penner is at 785-532-1672