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Turkey Safety

Preparing and storing your turkey correctly, can mean the difference between an enjoyable meal and food poisoning.


Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. If a turkey is allowed to thaw at temperatures above 40° F, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply again unless proper thawing methods are used. There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven.

Refrigerator Thawing

If thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, you need to plan ahead. For every 5 pounds of turkey, allow approximately 24 hours of thawing time in a refrigerator set at 40° F.

Refrigerator Thawing Times: (Whole Turkey)

  • 8 to 12 pounds 1 to 2 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds 2 to 3 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds 3 to 4 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds 4 to 5 days

Microwave Thawing

Follow the microwave manufacturer’s instructions when thawing a turkey in the microwave oven. Cook immediately after thawing because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwave thawing.

Cold Water Thawing

Allow 30 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in cold water. Be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof package. The tissues of the turkey can absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery turkey.

Make sure that the turkey is completely submerged in the cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times

  • 8 to 12 pounds 4 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

Safe Cooking

Set the oven temperature no lower than 325° F. For safety and uniform doneness of the turkey, cook the stuffing separately in a casserole dish. The internal temperature of the stuffing must reach at least 165° F.

If you choose to stuff a turkey, the internal temperature of a turkey must be checked with a food thermometer. The temperature of a whole turkey must reach 180° F in the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing must reach 165° F. If the stuffing has not reached 165° F, continue cooking until the stuffing reaches the proper temperature. If a turkey has a “pop-up” temperature indicator, it is recommended that you also use a food thermometer to test the temperature in several places, including the innermost part of the thigh and center of the stuffing.

When cooking a turkey breast, the internal temperature should reach 170° F.

Approximate Cooking Times:

The following time charts are based on fresh or completely thawed turkeys at refrigerator temperatures of 40° F or below. Frozen or partially thawed turkeys will take longer to cook. A frozen turkey will take 50 percent longer to cook than a fully thawed turkey. These cooking times are guidelines only. To determine safe doneness of your turkey use a food thermometer.

Un-stuffed Turkey

  • 4 to 6 lbs. Breast … 1 ½ to 2 ¼ hours.
  • 6 to 8 lbs. Breast ….2 ¼ to 3 ¼ hours.
  • 8 to 12 lbs……….. 2 ¾ to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 lbs……….3 to 3 ¾ hours
  • 14 to 18 lbs……….3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 lbs……….4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours
  • 20 to 24 lbs………..4 ½ to 5 hours

Stuffed Turkey

  • 8 to 12 lbs……… 3 to 3 ½ hours
  • 12 to 14 lbs……….3 ½ to 4 hours
  • 14 to 18lbs………..4 to 4 ¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 lbs……….4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours
  • 20 to 24 lbs………..4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours

Handling Precooked Dinners and Leftovers

Hot from the Oven

If the food will be eaten within 2 hours handle as follows:

  • Keep the food HOT.
  • Keeping the food warm is not enough. Harmful bacteria multiply fast between 40 and 140° F.

If you will not be eating within 2 hours, handle the hot food as follows:

  • Remove stuffing from the turkey cavity immediately and refrigerate in container.
  • Reheating a whole turkey is not recommended. Cut the turkey into smaller pieces.
  • Refrigerate potatoes, gravy and vegetables in shallow containers.
  • Reheat turkey pieces and all side dishes thoroughly to 165ºF, until hot and steaming. Bring gravy to a rolling boil.

Keep cold foods COLD.

  • Refrigerate cold foods as soon as possible, always within 2 hours and serve within 1 to 2 days.

Storage Times for Leftovers

Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly in containers.

Refrigerator (40ºF or slightly below)

  • Cooked Turkey………3 to 4 days
  • Stuffing and Gravy ….1 to 2 days
  • Other Cooked Dishes…3 to 4 days

Freezer (0° F or below)

  • Turkey slices/pieces, plain …. 4 months
  • Turkey covered with broth/gravy…6 months
  • Cooked poultry dishes …4 to 6 months
  • Stuffing and gravy…….1 month

If you have questions please contact:
Heather Unger   FCS Agent, EFNEP/FNP
at or (850)926-3931