How Long to Cook a Turkey & Other Thanksgiving Safety Tips from the USDA

From proper turkey thawing and cooking times to how long you can keep leftovers, here’s all you need to know for a safe and healthy Thanksgiving.

By Ethan L. Johns
November 07, 2018

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Every cook’s worst nightmare is making their guests sick at Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve got enough on your mind during the holidays—from turkey to sides to your obnoxious and opinionated Aunt Fran—so why would you want to worry about food poisoning too?

To help you leave your worries behind, we spoke with the U.S. Department of Agriculture about all the key ways to keep unwanted bacteria away from your dinner table on Thanksgiving.

Follow these helpful tips, and the only unpleasant sensation you’ll be feeling on the fourth Thursday in November will be from your food coma.

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Wash Your Hands

A whopping 69 percent of the time, home cooks do not wash their hands when they should, according to a recent USDA study. Even scarier, only 3 percent of those who actually washed their hands did it correctly.

When preparing Thanksgiving dinner, make sure to wash properly after touching raw meat and eggs. That means rinsing, lathering up with soap for at least 20 seconds (don’t forget to do the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails!), rinsing with hot water and drying with a clean towel.

Thaw Your Turkey the Right Way

Thinking about leaving it out on your counter? Don’t.

While fresh turkeys should be cooked before their “Sell By” dates, frozen turkeys can be purchased in advance and be thawed as needed.

To successfully thaw your turkey in time for Thanksgiving day, either thaw it in the refrigerator (it takes 24 hours for every four to five pounds), thaw it in cold water (make sure to change the water every 30 minutes, then cook it immediately once thawed) or microwave it (refer to your microwave manual to see how long this will take, then cook it immediately once thawed.)

Don’t Even Think About Washing that Bird

We love Julia Child, but she was wrong about her raw poultry; it should never be washed. Yet, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 68 percent of Americans wash their poultry in the kitchen sink.

When you wash your turkey, you will inevitably splash raw turkey bacteria all over your kitchen, putting you and your guests at risk for cross contamination. To avoid getting sick from Campylobacter and Salmonella, pat your turkey dry—if you must—with a paper towel, then throw the paper towel away.

Rethink Your Stuffing Strategy

If you’re putting bread stuffing inside your turkey, do not refrigerate the two together overnight, as harmful bacteria can multiply. And need we tell you that you should never eat stuffing from the cavity of a cooked turkey, since it may not be cooked all the way through.

In fact, maybe don’t stuff your turkey with stuffing at all! For perfectly perfumed meat, stuff the cavity with herbs and lemons that have a bunch of holes poked in them.

Use a Thermometer!

While the recommendation of 15 minutes per pound for an unstuffed turkey is a good place to start, it’s only an approximation.

According to a USDA study, only 12 percent of people actually cook their turkey to the proper internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature must be reached in order to kill harmful bacteria.

The only way to tell if your turkey is fully cooked is to use a thermometer, so if you don’t have one, get an instant-read thermometer now. Make sure to check the temperature in three locations: the thickest part of the breast; the innermost part of the thigh; and the innermost part of the wing.

For a complete guide to cooking your turkey, check out this handy PDF.

Turns Out You Can Roast a Frozen Turkey

Forgot to thaw your turkey, or don’t have enough time?

You can put a frozen turkey in the oven, just keep in mind that it will need to be cooked at least 50 percent longer than a thawed turkey.

All About Leftovers

Your leftovers should be stored in the fridge within two hours of cooking. Divide them up into small containers so they cool faster.

You can save your leftovers for up to four days, according to the USDA. If you want to keep them around for a bit longer, they can last from two to six months in the freezer.

When reheating your leftovers, the USDA would like to remind you that you should make sure to heat them to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.


If you have additional questions about meat and poultry or food spoilage in general, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov available from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish. Additionally, the hotline is available to answer food safety questions on Thanksgiving Day from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm ET.  
 
Consumers with more food safety questions can also visit FoodSafety.gov.


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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns