It’s the pride and joy of most family Thanksgiving feasts — yes, we’re talking about the turkey! (Though pumpkin pie may be a close second).

Before you toss the bird in the oven … the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that raw foods, including the ever-popular Thanksgiving turkey, are prone to contamination.

Stuff yourself with yummy food, not yucky germs, by following these helpful tips on how to cook a turkey.

Before you begin… Take a moment to scrub down all surfaces that food may come in contact with using a disinfecting solution of 1 tablespoon of regular chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water, then let air dry. To prevent cross-contamination of surfaces, repeat this after working with raw foods and when finishing up one food prep task before starting on another. And remember to wash your hands thoroughly and often while you go about your preparations. Additionally, don’t rinse your raw turkey in the kitchen sink before cooking it, as that can spray contaminated water on nearby surfaces in the process.

Thawing Your Thanksgiving Turkey

While thawing your Thanksgiving turkey may seem like a simple task, it’s important that you do it properly to prevent the spread of foodborne pathogens.

Never thaw a turkey on the counter overnight. Leaving raw poultry out at room temperature for more than two hours puts it in the food temperature danger zone, making it susceptible to foodborne bacteria that can make your family sick. Instead, let your turkey thaw in the fridge for the recommended period of time for its size.

Weight Thawing Time
4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days

Source: www.fsis.usda.gov

How Long to Cook a Turkey in the Oven

According to FoodSafety.gov, turkey should be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165°F to prevent the risk of foodborne illness. The time needed to safely cook your turkey varies based on its weight and whether your turkey is stuffed.

Approximate Cooking Times (Regular Oven at 325°F)

Weight Cook Time (Unstuffed) Cook Time (Stuffed)
8 to12 lbs. 2 ¾ to 3 hrs. 3 to 3 ½ hrs.
12 to 14 lbs. 3 to 3 ¾ hrs. 3 ½ to 4 hrs.
14 to 18 lbs. 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hrs. 4 to 4 ¼ hrs.
18 to 20 lbs. 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hrs. 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hrs.
20 to 24 lbs. 4 ½ to 5 hrs. 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hrs.

Source: FoodSafety.gov 

Stuffing Safety

Stuffing your Thanksgiving turkey? Stuffing in a turkey cavity is an excellent medium for bacterial growth, so be sure that your stuffing reaches a minimum temperature of 165°F. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends precooking any raw meats or seafood that you plan to add to your stuffing, as these could be a source of bacteria. Mix wet and dry stuffing ingredients together just before loosely filling the cavity with about ¾ cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Be sure the stuffing is moist, not dry, because heat destroys bacteria faster in a moist environment.

Prepared stuffing must either be purchased frozen or cooked immediately — never refrigerate uncooked stuffing. If you choose to freeze your prepared stuffing, cook it frozen, not thawed, until it reaches 165°F.

Storing Leftover Turkey

The only thing better than the Thanksgiving feast? Eating all of the yummy leftovers! Leftovers are a wonderful reward after all that hard work, but how long are they good for? The National Turkey Federation provides the following leftover storage recommendations:

Storage of Leftovers in the Refrigerator

Cooked Turkey 3 to 4 days
Stuffing and Gravy 1 to 2 days
Other Cooked Dishes 3 to 4 days

Storage of Leftovers in the Freezer

Turkey slices/pieces, plain 4 months
Turkey with broth or gravy 6 months
Cooked poultry dishes 4 to 6 months
Stuffing and gravy 1 month

(Foods frozen remain safe longer but may become drier and lose flavor.)

As soon as everyone has finished gobbling up their food, place leftovers in the refrigerator. Rather than throwing the uneaten remains of the turkey in a big container, cut it up and place in smaller, shallow containers to help it cool down and reach a safe resting temperature faster.

Don’t forget to check out our other helpful Thanksgiving food safety tips before you begin preparing your holiday feast!

Wishing your family a Happy Thanksgiving!