It’s Thanksgiving or turkey day, as many in the U.S. call it. And if you aren’t a vegetarian or vegan, there’s a good chance your choice of feast today will be turkey. While there are many ways to cook turkey and some disagree upon the best recipes, everyone can agree that safety is of the primary importance. Undercook a turkey and not only will you have ruined Thanksgiving dinner, you might have sickened anyone who was unfortunate enough to eat it.
Here are some tips to ensure your Thanksgiving dinner is as safe as it is delicious.
How to Cook a Turkey Safely
Fresh or Frozen
There are two ways to secure a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. One is to have your turkey caught live and butchered, the other is to buy a frozen turkey. When buying a fresh turkey, there is no need to freeze the turkey if you purchase it one to two days before cooking. Make sure it is refrigerated constantly and avoid fresh turkeys that are labeled as “pre-stuffed” These turkeys have a greater risk of contamination from various organisms and bacteria such as e coli.
Many choose to buy a frozen turkey as there really is no limit on freezer dates. Frozen turkeys taste best if used within one year, making them a popular food staple. When using frozen turkeys, it is imperative to thaw them properly before cooking.
How much Turkey per Person?
Knowing how much turkey to purchase per person can seem a daunting task. The general rule is to allow one pound of turkey per person. This rule is the same whether preparing a frozen or fresh turkey.
How to Thaw a Turkey
Knowing how to thaw a turkey is crucial to your Thanksgiving dinner’s overall success. If the turkey isn’t properly thawed, it won’t cook evenly and you run the risk of becoming sick. There are three methods used to thaw turkeys: in the microwave, in cold water, and in the refrigerator.
How to Thaw a Turkey in a Refrigerator
The refrigerator method takes the longest time and it is recommended to allow 24 hours of thawing for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. Ensure that the refrigerator is set to a temperature less than 40 degrees. For example, a 20 pound frozen turkey requires five days to thaw in a refrigerator set at a temperature less than 40 degrees.
To thaw a turkey between 4 and 12 pounds, thaw in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 days. A turkey weighing between 12 and 16 pounds requires 3 to 4 days to thaw, and a turkey weighing between 16 and 20 pounds requires 5 to 6 days to thaw in a refrigerator. While most prefer to cook their turkeys immediately after thawing, it isn’t necessarily a rule. A turkey that has been successfully thawed in the refrigerator may be refrozen if required. You may also leave a thawed turkey in a refrigerator for 1 to 2 days before cooking.
How to Thaw a Turkey in a Microwave
While many prefer using the refrigerator method for turkey thawing, sometimes a turkey isn’t purchased until the last minute and there simply isn’t enough time. One method for those needing to thaw a turkey quickly is to use the microwave. The time for thawing depends upon your individual microwave’s settings. Microwaves vary in power settings and cooking times. Check with your microwave’s manual to determine the best settings. If you can’t find your manual, check online. There is a good chance you can locate your owner’s manual at the manufacturer’s site.
One rule to remember is that a turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing in the microwave. Do not refreeze or store the turkey in the refrigerator. Microwaving a turkey for purposes of thawing also causes the turkey to cook a bit. Because of this it is important to cook the turkey after it has completely thawed.
How to Thaw a Turkey in Cold Water
While not as fast as a microwave, there are times when you can’t thaw a turkey in the refrigerator and a microwave isn’t available. Also, some may find there turkey is too large for the microwave and need another way to thaw it. For whatever reason, thawing a turkey in cold water is a safe and effective method that produces somewhat quick results.
It’s important to ensure the turkey is well protecter, so that the water won’t enter it during the thawing process. The general rule is to allow 30 minutes of thawing in cold water per pound of turkey. With this method, it will take 2 hours to thaw a 4 pound turkey, 6 hours to thaw a 12 pound turkey, 8 hours to thaw a 16 pound turkey and 10 hours to thaw a 20 pound turkey. Remember to change the water every 30 minutes as well.
What about Giblets?
Always remove giblets from the turkey after thawing and before cooking. Giblets may be cooked separately and are considered a delicacy by some. Others use them as pet food. Whatever your preference, make certain to remove them before preparing your turkey and stuffing it.
How to Stuff a Turkey
Not everyone chooses to stuff their turkeys before cooking. Some prefer to cook the stuffing separately, rather than putting it inside the bird. You can always mix your stuffing ingredients separately, and remember if cooking stuffing ahead of time, keep wet ingredients refrigerated before using. Turkeys must be cooked immediately after stuffing. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of stuffing. Stuffing is safe to eat when it reaches at least 165 degrees F. It should be stated that most health organizations discourage stuffing a bird and recommend the stuffing to be cooked separately.
Recommended Cooking Temperature for Turkeys
Set your oven to no less than 325’ to ensure that your turkey is thoroughly cooked. Use a food thermometer to check the turkey’s internal temperature. This is recommended even if your turkey comes with a pop-up thermometer. Just like stuffing, a safe temperature for a cooked turkey is 165 degrees F. Most people find that a turkey that has been left to set for 20 minutes carves easier than those that came straight out of the oven.
How Long does a Turkey Need to Cook?
Unstuffed turkeys cook faster than stuffed turkeys. This is another reason why many people today are choosing to cook stuffing separately from the turkey. A 4 to 8 pound turkey requires between 1 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours to cook. An 8 to 12 pound turkey takes between 2 3/4 and 3 hours to cook. A 12 -14 pound turkey requires 3 to 3/4 hours for cooking. A 14 to 18 pound turkey requires between 3 3/4 and 4 1/4 hours to cook and a 20 to 24 pound turkey requires between 4 1/2 and 5 hours.
A stuffed turkey requires more cooking time. Typically, a turkey between 4 and 6 pounds is too small to stuff. A stuffed turkey between 6 and 8 pounds requires 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours to cook. A stuffed turkey weighing between 8 and 12 pounds requires 3 to 3 1/2 hours to cook and a stuffed turkey between 12 and 14 pounds requires between 3 1/2 and 4 hours to cook. Set aside 4 to 4 1/2 hours for a stuffed turkey weighing between 14 and 16 pounds. A 16 to 18 pound stuffed turkey will need between 4 1/2 and 5 hours to cook. A stuffed turkey weighing between 18 and 20 pounds will need between 5 and 5 1/2 hours to cook. Always check the turkey’s internal temperature and make certain it is at least 165 degrees F.
These tips will help ensure your turkey is thoroughly cooked and safe. Make certain to wash your hands, countertops, and any utensils involved in the cooking process. Here are some recipes from various Thanksgiving cookbooks that will help ensure your holiday is a delicious one.
Free Thanksgiving Recipes
The following cookbooks are available online and free of charge. They are in PDF format.