For some families, turkey has been the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner table for generations.
But maybe this is your first attempt at preparing a turkey — or maybe it’s been awhile and you could use some reminders. Or, maybe there’s a thing or two here that you never knew.
So, let’s get you started.
You might wonder: How big of turkey should I buy?
Of course, that depends on how many people you’re serving, but the rule of thumb is one pound per person, whether buying a fresh or frozen bird.
You probably also want to know: When should I buy my turkey?
Purchase a fresh turkey a day or two before you plan to cook it.
Of course, you can buy a frozen turkey at your convenience. Just remember to leave enough time to let it thaw.
• If thawing in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours for every 4 pounds to 5 pounds. In other words, plan for four days of thawing for a frozen 16-pound bird.
To properly thaw it, keep it in its original wrapper and place it on a tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.
After it’s completely thawed, it can remain in the refrigerator for a day or two before cooking.
• If thawing in cold water, allow 30 minutes for every pound — in other words, eight hours for a 16-pounder.
To use this method, submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water, refreshing the water every 30 minutes.
Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
• If thawing by microwave, remove the wrapper and place the turkey on a microwave safe dish. Follow the thawing instructions in your microwave manual.
Cook the turkey as soon as it’s thawed.
To stuff or not to stuff?
Stuffed frozen turkeys, with a USDA-inspected label, are considered safe to eat. They can go from freezer to oven, without thawing.
In general, though, if you’re preparing your own stuffing, it is safest to cook it separately from the turkey.
If you do choose to stuff your turkey, be sure the cooked internal temperature of the stuffing is at 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Here’s another pointer, that may seem odd: Don’t wash or clean the turkey before cooking it. Instead of cleaning the turkey, the action of washing it can actually spread bacteria around and creates a potential of cross-contaminating other foods.
Just remember, cooking the turkey is the best way to get rid of bacteria.
Of course, it’s also a good idea to wash your hands and keep surfaces clean, using warm soap and water.
Although oven-roasting is popular, there are other options for cooking a turkey. They include deep-frying, smoking and grilling.
Whatever cooking method you choose, be sure that the minimum internal cooking temperature of the turkey is 165 degrees Fahrenheit, to ensure that it’s safe to eat.
Follow the appliance cooking manuals to be sure to produce the proper temperatures.
Also, use a meat thermometer to check the temperature. The best places to probe the turkey are the thigh, the wing and the larger part of the breast.
Oven temperatures should be set at a minimum 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cooking times, of course, vary by the size of the turkey.
This table provides some recommended cooking times, courtesy of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services:
Size of turkey Unstuffed Stuffed
8-12 pounds 2 ¾-hours to 3 hours 3 hours to 3 ½-hours
12-14 pounds 3 hours to 3 ¾-hours 3 ½-hours to 4 hours
14-18 pounds 3 ¾-hours to 4 ¼-hours 4-hours to 4 ¼-hours
18-20 pounds 4 ¼-hours to 4 ½-hours 4 ¼-hours to 4 ¾-hours
20-24 pounds 4 ½-hours to 5 hours 4 ¾-hours to 5 ¼-hours
Steps for roasting a Thanksgiving Turkey
Here’s one way to roast a Thanksgiving turkey:
- Be sure to read the packaging for important information.
- Grease and salt the outside of the turkey, for a crispy skin.
- You may want to lift up the skin and rub the meat with spices, such as thyme, garlic, rosemary and other seasonings.
- If you’re baking a frozen turkey, don’t forget to remove the bag of giblets in the neck and body cavities, and the wire that holds the legs together.
- Roast the turkey, uncovered, at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 335-340 degrees Fahrenheit. (That seals in the juices of the bird.)
- Consult the chart in this column for estimated cooking times.
- Toward the end of cooking, tent the turkey with aluminum foil to keep in the moisture.
- Remember: Use your meat thermometer to be sure it is properly cooked. It’s not possible to tell by appearance, smell or taste alone.
Last, but not least, gather your favorite people to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast, with your turkey playing a starring role.
Food safety tips
When gathering with loved ones through the holidays, keep these food safety tips in mind:
- Observe the 2-hour rule. When food has been left at room temperature for 2 hours or more, it should be discarded. Leaving it out for more than 2 hours can allow bacteria to grow, making the food unsafe to eat.
- You can safely refrigerate turkey for 3-4 days; you can freeze it for 2-6 months.
- Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
Shari Bresin is the Family & Consumer Science agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension Pasco County. Intern Alisa Boderick contributed to this column.
By Shari Bresin, Alisa Broderick
Published November 17, 2021