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Is Your Holiday Turkey in JEOPARDY?

Defrosted on the counter, prestuffed, slow-baked, partially cooked, stored whole without carving…? If any of these situations sounds like your usual Thanksgiving dinner preparation plans, you may be putting your turkey in jeopardy.

Mistake 1.

Defrosting at Room Temperature

“We’ve always done it that way…There’s no room in the refrigerator…We forgot it was in the trunk of the car…It’s in a cold basement.”

While there are many reasons why consumers find themselves with turkeys defrosted at room temperature, some planned and some unplanned, the result is the same—a potentially unsafe turkey. Bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature. Bacteria will begin to grow on the outside portion of the bird that defrosts first. These surface bacteria can multiply to dangerously high levels that cooking may not destroy.


Plan on 1 day of refrigerator defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey. A 10-pound turkey will take approximately 2 days to defrost in the refrigerator, a 15-pound turkey 3 days, and a 20-pound turkey 4 days.

If you forget to take your turkey out of the freezer early enough, don’t panic. You’re not in hot water yet, especially if you remember to use the COLD WATER technique. Even a 20-pound frozen turkey can be defrosted in 10 hours using the cold water defrost method. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water, adding ice or new cold water every 30 minutes.

Mistake 2.

Prestuffing a Turkey the Night Before

It’s okay to prestuff Christmas stockings, but not Thanksgiving birds!

Stuffing a turkey the night before is risky business. The cavity of the bird actually insulates the stuffing from the cold temperatures, and can keep the stuffing in a temperature range that encourages bacterial growth.


Prepare dry stuffing ingredients the day before. Tightly cover and leave at room temperature. The perishables—butter or margarine, mushrooms, oysters, cooked celery and onion, broth—should be refrigerated. Combine the dry and wet ingredients and stuff the bird immediately before the turkey goes into the oven.

Mistake 3.

Cooking at Low Temperatures Overnight

Cooking below 325°F is unsafe because low temperatures permit the bird (and the stuffing) to remain the the “danger zone” (40°F – 140°F) too long. While in this “zone” bacteria can grow and some produce heat-resistant toxins.


Cook perishable foods at an oven temperature no lower than 325°F.

Mistake 4.

Partially Cooking a Bird the Day Before

Some time-savers are safer than others. Partially cooking a turkey is not one of them. Interrupted cooking can actually increase the possibility of bacterial growth. The turkey may be heated long enough to activate bacterial growth, but no long enough to kill it.


Cook the turkey completely in one operation. Several other ideas for SAFE time-saving include: 1) Using oven cooking bags, 2) Baking stuffing separately from the turkey, 3) Cooking and carving the turkey 1 to 2 days before the holiday, and storing it in the refrigerator for reheating on the big day.

Mistake 5.

Cooking a Turkey Ahead of Time and Leaving It Whole in the Refrigerator

Cooking the turkey a day or two before the holiday is fine, but refrigerating the bird whole, without carving, is another form of turkey jeopardy. A cooked turkey, stuffed or unstuffed, is too big and dense to cool down quickly and efficiently in a home refrigerator. In addition, reheating the turkey the next day in a slow oven to prevent drying out could allow even more growth of potential food poisoning bacteria.


Roast the turkey 1 or 2 days before the holiday. Use a meat thermometer to make sure that the bird reaches 180°F. Remove stuffing immediately after taking the bird from the oven. Allow the turkey to sit for 20 to 30 minutes so that the meat juices can settle. Carve the bird into appropriate serving slices. Arrange turkey slices in shallow baking pans. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat Thanksgiving Day in a conventional oven or microwave. Make sure that meat and stuffing are reheated to “steamy hot”, 165°F.

Problem 6.

Power Failure

The oven broke down, a rainstorm downed power lines, there’s no gas for the gas grill. You can’t keep your bird hot…or you can’t keep your bird cold.

These unplanned situations arise through the fault of no one. Besides causing anxiety and stress, they can also lead to an unsafe bird.


Time is of the essence. If your bird has been in any of these situations for over 2 hours, your turkey could become risky. After 2 hours the turkey enters the “danger zone” where food poisoning bacteria can multiply rapidly. To discuss your unique situation, call one of the food experts on the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-800-535-4555.

Information provided by USDA Food News for Consumers

For further information, contact:
Dorothy C. Lee, CFCS
Family and Consumer Sciences Agent
UF IFAS Escambia County Extension
(850) 475-5230