Practice Thanksgiving Food Safety Basics
by Discover Muscatine Staff
November 15, 2023

By Anirudh Naig

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Anirudh Naig, a food safety extension state specialist and associate professor in apparel, events and hospitality management at Iowa State University, provides some tips about turkey for a safe Thanksgiving meal.

man taking roast turkey out of the oven

A man taking roast turkey out of the oven.

Fresh turkey should be stored in the refrigerator until it is time to cook it. Frozen turkey will need additional time to thaw before cooking, Naig said. The three methods of thawing are 1) in the refrigerator, 2) with intact packaging in cold water, and 3) in the microwave oven. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing in cold water or the microwave.

Thaw turkey safely

Use the following guide to thaw turkey safely based on weight, Naig explained.

In the refrigerator:

  • 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.

Under cold water:

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours

Using a microwave oven: Thaw turkey according to oven manufacturer guidelines.

Cook turkey safely

Naig offers these guidelines.

  • Use a calibrated food thermometer to ensure a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit has been reached to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness.
  • Use this USDA guide for turkey cooking times to ensure food safety.
  • Do not rely solely on pop-up thermometers to measure internal temperature of turkey. Always use a food thermometer. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey. Naig suggests inserting the thermometer in two to three places to ensure the turkey has been cooked to the appropriate internal temperature.
  • After cooking turkey, consume immediately. Do not leave turkey sitting out for more than two hours. All leftovers should be stored in containers and immediately refrigerated. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days or frozen for three to four months.
  • Reheat leftovers to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F.

For more information, contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. The hotline is open year-round Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time (English or Spanish). Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

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