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Holiday Turkey 101

How to Handle Your Holiday Turkey

First time cooking for a holiday crowd? Or just need to recheck your facts on defrosting, stuffing and cooking times? The following tips are great for anyone who is hosting the holiday bash, so that your turkey brings a smile to everyone’s face!

How To Thaw a Frozen Turkey:

Most of us start with a frozen turkey, so we’ll start there. The tip here is to allow plenty of time for it to defrost in the refrigerator – 24 hours thawing time for every five pounds of turkey. So if you have a 20 pound turkey, allow four days of refrigerator time.

Defrosting in the refrigerator is the safest method, and the least maintenance. Just leave the turkey in its original wrapping and place it in a baking pan, breast side up, and place in the refrigerator for the allotted time. Never defrost a turkey at room temperature.

You can speed thawing by putting it in cold water and leaving it on the counter. The key here is to leave the turkey in its original wrapping but also place it in a large, sealed bag to prevent contamination. Then place the sealed turkey in a basin and cover with cold water.

Change the water completely every 30 minutes. You should allow 30 minutes of thawing per pound, so a 20 pound turkey would require ten hours to unthaw. That’s ten hours of work every half hour, of course, so while this is faster, it is much more labor-intensive. There is also a risk of bacterial growth near the surface of the bird as the interior thaws, so be sure to cook the turkey immediately – do not put it back in the refrigerator to cook the next day.

Wondering if you’ve had your turkey in the freezer too long? Check out our Ask the Chef by clicking here.

How to Safely Handle a Raw Turkey:

  • First, wash your hands with hot, soapy water, and do this after handling the turkey and before touching anything else in the kitchen.
  • Make sure you use a separate cutting board and utensils for the turkey to avoid contaminating other foods.
  • Wash the cutting boards and utensils used for the turkey as soon as you are done with them.
  • Use paper towels instead of cloths for clean-up wherever possible.

How to Stuff a Turkey:

If you choose to stuff the turkey, do it just before placing the turkey in the oven. Remove the giblets and neck (check both cavities) and rinse the bird inside and out with cold water. Place the stuffing loosely into the turkey’s cavity. Remember, you will need to allow a longer cooking time if the bird is stuffed.

How to Cook a Turkey:

A meat thermometer is your best tool for safety. Plan to roast your turkey at a minimum of 325 degrees until the thickest part of the inner thigh registers 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. The breast meat should register 170 degrees, and if the bird is stuffed, the stuffing must reach 165 degrees.

Turkey Cooking Times:

  • An 8-12 pound turkey, unstuffed, should cook for about 3 hours.
  • A 12-14 pound turkey, unstuffed, should cook for about 3 to 3 3/4 hours.
  • A 14-18 pound turkey, unstuffed, should cook for about 4 hours.
  • An 18-20 pound turkey, unstuffed, should cook for about 4 1/2 hours.
  • A 20-24 pound turkey, unstuffed, should cook for about 5 hours.

Add one half hour to total cooking time if you turkey is stuffed. These times are a general rule-of-thumb and vary according to individual ovens. Be sure to use a thermometer to be sure.

After the Turkey is Cooked:

After you take it out of the oven, allow the turkey to rest for at least 15-20 minutes to allow the juices to settle. The temperature of the bird will continue to rise. After carving the turkey, allow leftovers to cool slightly (but no more than an hour), then place in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator. Store leftover stuffing separately. Use within three days.

Use these tips for a safe, happy Thanksgiving – happy eating!