Let’s Talk Turkey

Let’s Talk Turkey

The countdown to Thanksgiving is on, and there really isn’t a lot of time for unnecessary fluff. Have you started defrosting your Thanksgiving turkey yet? Like most Americans, a turkey is the center of our Thanksgiving celebration, flanked by time-tested favorites. While there is much planning and talk about side dishes and desserts, today I want to focus on the the turkey, specifically preparing it safely.

At least 44 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving and 22 million at Christmas, making turkey a clear front-runner in American holiday tables. Most Americans choose a frozen turkey, a fine choice since modern flash-freeze techniques preserve nutrition and flavor. Fresh turkeys come with the advantages of no defrosting lead time, but come at a higher cost and possible quality decline resulting from increased transit time without the preservation benefits of flash freezing.

If you will be preparing a turkey you bought in the freezer section, time’s a tickin’ to get that bad boy (bad girl, more likely; most whole birds sold are hens) ready for the oven. Here is the defrosting low-down according to our friends at the USDA. Before you panic, if you are reading this and realize you are too late to follow these safe defrosting guidelines, not all is lost. We have a Plan B.

There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven. Note,  letting it sit on the counter is NOT an option.

(All thawing information has been taken directly from the USDA website. This is food safety, folks. I see no need to be creative, I simply want to help keep the holiday foodborne illness-free.)

Safe Methods for Thawing
Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer.

Frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored. As refrigerator space becomes prime realty during the holiday food purchase and prep period, it’s tempting to use any of these methods, but putting yourself and your holiday guests at risk of food borne illness simply isn’t worth it.

Refrigerator Thawing
When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator:

  • Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below.
  • Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.

Refrigerator Thawing Times 
Whole turkey

  • 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

A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality.

Cold Water Thawing
Allow about 30 minutes per pound.

First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product.

Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times 

  • 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

A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.

Microwave Thawing
Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instruction when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed.

A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately.


So, you have 5 sides to make, a table to set, and you still haven’t showered. The cold water method takes time and effort you don’t have. But, your microwave won’t accommodate your frozen turkey. It’s ok, don’t panic. The culinary crew at Williams-Sonoma Taste have you covered. Follow the link for directions for roasting your turkey from frozen.

Next stop, cooking the turkey following the guidelines outlined by the USDA:

(Again, all turkey cooking  information taken directly from the USDA website. This is about food safety first, and they are the authorities.)

Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking

A food thermometer should be used to ensure a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F has been reached to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness.

Many variables can affect the roasting time of a whole turkey:

  • A partially frozen turkey requires longer cooking.
  • A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook.
  • The oven may heat food unevenly.
  • Temperature of the oven may be inaccurate.
  • Dark roasting pans cook faster than shiny metals.
  • The depth and size of the pan can reduce heat circulation to all areas of the turkey.
  • The use of a foil tent for the entire time can slow cooking.
  • Use of the roasting pan’s lid speeds cooking.
  • An oven cooking bag can accelerate cooking time.
  • The rack position can have an effect on even cooking and heat circulation.
  • A turkey or its pan may be too large for the oven, thus blocking heat circulation.


1. Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 °F. Preheating is not necessary.

2. Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Times are based on fresh or thawed birds at a refrigerator temperature of 40 °F or below.

3. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep.
Optional steps:

  • Tuck wing tips back under shoulders of bird (called “akimbo”).
  • Add one-half cup water to the bottom of the pan.
  • In the beginning, a tent of aluminum foil may be placed loosely over the breast of the turkey for the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours, then removed for browning. Or, a tent of foil may be placed over the turkey after the turkey has reached the desired golden brown color.

4. For optimum safety, cook stuffing in a casserole. If stuffing your turkey, mix ingredients just before stuffing it; stuff loosely. Additional time is required for the turkey and stuffing to reach a safe minimum internal temperature (see chart).

5. For safety and doneness, the internal temperature should be checked with a food thermometer. The temperature of the turkey and the center of the stuffing must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

6. Let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving.

(325 °F oven temperature) 

UNSTUFFED (time in hours)

  • 4 to 6 lb. breast — 1 1/2 to 2 1/4
  • 6 to 8 lb. breast — 2 1/4 to 3 1/4
  • 8 to 12 lbs. — 2 3/4 to 3
  • 12 to 14 lbs. — 3 to 3 3/4
  • 14 to 18 lbs. — 3 3/4 to 4 1/4
  • 18 to 20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 1/2
  • 20 to 24 lbs. — 4 1/2 to 5

STUFFED (time in hours)

  • 8 to 12 lbs. — 3 to 3 1/2
  • 12 to 14 lbs. — 3 1/2 to 4
  • 14 to 18 lbs. — 4 to 4 1/4
  • 18 to 20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 3/4
  • 20 to 24 lbs. — 4 3/4 to 5 1/4

And, for those of you who like to prepare your bird in ways other than roasting, click here for alternative safe-prep recommendations.

Still need some help? Since 1981, the Butterball Turkey Talk line has been answering home chefs questions about turkey. Open from November to December, they field over 100,000 questions per season. If you need help, they are available via email, chat, or by phone (1-800-288-8372).

Now, we enter Part II of Thanksgiving: Leftovers

Nearly 80%  of those polled agreed that Thanksgiving leftovers were the best thing about hosting this fall feast, so let’s make sure those leftovers don’t make you sick.

Don’t Contaminate Your Leftovers: 

After you finish your holiday meal, get that food properly put away. Perishable foods should not be left on the table or counter for more than 2 hours, which is a conceivable amount of time it may take from preparation to the end of your meal. If guests have brought food, take into account the time their dish left the oven or refrigerator to the time it made it to your table. Bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature, which means if you let that food sit out, you may be breeding an overgrowth of harmful invaders that could result in foodborne illness, commonly called food poisoning. It’s as bad as it sounds. Food poisoning is not something anyone wants and is preventable.  You cannot see, smell, or taste the bacteria that may take residence in your Thanksgiving perishables. Believe it or not, bacteria can double within a 20-minute period. Mouthful of harmful bacteria with your leftover stuffing, anyone? Gross. The solution is to pack up leftovers as soon as possible. Place them in shallow sealable containers so they can cool down quickly in the fridge to get below 40 F.. Avoid over-loading your refrigerator, as this can block air circulation and increase the appliance’s internal temperature. Also, check to be sure that the temperature inside your fridge is 40 degrees F or below (look at the refrigerator thermometer to be sure).

Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands: Kitchen food safety begins with proper handwashing. This Thanksgiving, and everyday, remember that it is imperative to wash your hands before and after handling any food, especially after using the bathroom, changing diapers, touching your nose, face or hair, or handling pets. Handwashing alone can cut the risk of foodborne illness by around 50 percent. Proper handwashing takes just about 20 seconds. All it takes is washing with warm, soapy water, long enough to sing two choruses of “Happy Birthday”  or the “ABC’s” while you lather (about 20 seconds). Remember to wash front and back of your hands, up to your wrists, between fingers and under fingernails. Dry your hands with disposable paper towels or a new, clean towel (not the dirty towel other people have been using to wipe their hands or dry dishes). If you are concerned about the burden of washing extra kitchen towels, think of the laundry a case (or household) of food poisoning might bring with it.

Next up: The New Superfood