Panhandle Perspectives: Turkey timeline for food safety

turkey drumstick
Wikimedia Creative Commons / D Sharon Pruitt
Thanksgiving dinner turkey drumstick.
November 14, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —Preparing for holiday meals this year may look different for many people, as we consider celebrating in smaller family groups due to COVID-19. Some people may be preparing turkey for the first time. Follow these basic turkey recommendations for food safety.

Things to do ahead of time:

Buy a thermometer: An oven-safe dial thermometer is one that remains in the food as it cooks. An instant-read thermometer cannot stay in the food while cooking. Either one is fine to use; be sure to follow thermometer directions for safe use and collaboration.

Purchase the turkey: Allow 1 pound per person as a guide to the size of turkey needed. If planning to use a frozen turkey, make sure there is enough room in the freezer to store it until ready to defrost. If there is not enough room in the freezer, purchase the turkey four to five days before cooking and allow time to defrost in the refrigerator. If using a fresh turkey, make arrangements to purchase it one to two days before you plan to cook it. Store in the refrigerator. Do not purchase a pre-stuffed turkey.

Defrost the turkey: The best way to defrost a turkey is in the refrigerator in a pan to contain the juices. A 16-pound turkey will need about four days to defrost. A thawed turkey can be stored in the refrigerator one to two days before it should be cooked. Note that turkey can be cooked from the frozen state, but will require about 50 percent more time to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The giblet package should be carefully removed with tongs once the turkey is sufficiently defrosted.

On the cooking day:

Roasting is the most common method for cooking turkey. Steps for preparation and roasting:

  • Wash hands with soap and water before and after handling turkey.
  • Set oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the giblet package found inside the bird cavity.
  • DO NOT rinse. Cooking to the correct temperature will destroy bacteria. Rinsing poultry can spread dangerous bacteria around the sink and surrounding area.
  • For food safety reasons, it is recommended that the stuffing be cooked separately and not inside the cavity of the bird.
  • Place the turkey breast-side-up on a wire rack in a shallow roasting pan. Add ½ cup water to bottom of pan. Place a tent of aluminum foil over the breast the first 1-1 ½ hours, then remove to allow for browning.
  • A 16-pound turkey will require about four hours to cook to a safe temperature. Use a food-safe thermometer to check for doneness. The pop-up indicator that comes in some turkeys is only a guide. The turkey must reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. Test by inserting the thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Never leave an instant read thermometer inside the oven.

 Serving turkey:

The turkey will be juicier if you allow about 20 minutes for it to set at room temperature before carving.

Storing and serving leftovers:

Leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator within two hours. Divide into smaller portions to allow for quicker cooling. Leftovers can be served cold or reheated to 165 degrees.

For more helpful tips on planning for thanksgiving, food safety, recipes and more go to food.unl.edu

Turkey hotline:

For more information about food safety (in English and Spanish), call: 
USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline

(1-888-674-6854) from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.

News Release Contact

  • Dave Ostdiek
  • Communications Specialist
  • Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff
  • mobile-phone-portrait(mobile-phones)308-632-1252
  • email-2(email)dostdiek4@unl.edu