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Preparing Turkey for the Holidays

Originally written by Hope Kleine, former SDSU Extension Health Education Field Specialist.

The holidays often involve preparing turkey. Planning ahead to safely prepare and roast a turkey will relieve some of the cooking stress associated with the holidays. Safe food handling is important for the health of you and your family.

Tips for Thanksgiving Cooking

  • When purchasing a fresh or frozen turkey, allow one pound of turkey per person.
  • Frozen turkeys require several days to thaw. Thaw in the refrigerator (40 degrees or below), allow about 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds.
  • You can thaw a turkey faster by placing in water at 70° F or colder and changing the water every 15 minutes.
  • Do not stuff a partially frozen turkey.
  • Oven temperature to roast turkey should be set to 325° F or higher.
  • Whole turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165° F. Measure from in the innermost part of the thigh with a food thermometer.
  • Cook the stuffing separately for better safety and uniform doneness.
  • If you choose to stuff the turkey before cooking, make sure both the turkey and the stuffing reach an internal temperature of 165° F.
  • If purchasing a pre-stuffed turkey from a USDA-Inspected plant, keep frozen until cooked – do not thaw before cooking. The USDA recommends NOT buying retail-stuffed, uncooked turkeys from a store or restaurant. Stuffing works like an insulator, therefore it is important to follow guidelines for safe cooking.

Tips for Preparing and Cooking Turkey the Day Before Serving

Busy schedules define individual’s lives today. Preparing turkey one day before serving may be easier and less stressful. If you plan to prepare turkey a day ahead, follow these guidelines for cooling, storing and reheating turkey:

  • Prepare and roast turkey according to food safety guidelines.
  • After the turkey is roasted and removed from the oven, let the turkey set about 20 minutes to allow the juices to distribute throughout.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before beginning to slice the turkey.
  • Slice breast meat. Wings and legs may be left whole.
  • Place turkey in shallow containers (such as cake pans) to allow for faster cooling. Loosely cover the sliced turkey meat and place in the refrigerator while still warm. Cover tightly when completely cooled.
  • Broth can be saved and refrigerated for making gravy.
  • If cooking stuffing ahead of time, cook immediately when mixed, cool quickly in 2-inch depth containers, and cover after cooled.

Serving Pre-Cooked Turkey

  • Turkey that is prepared for serving the next day can be eaten cold or hot.
  • If serving hot, reheat the turkey in the oven set at a temperature no lower than 325° F. The internal temperature must reach 165° F. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.
  • Do no reheat turkey, stuffing or gravy slowly. If reheated slowly, microorganisms that survived the normal cooking process, or contamination from handling the turkey before cooling, have ample time to grow and possibly produce toxins to make people sick. Reheating leftovers in a crockpot is not recommended.
  • Keep the turkey moist during reheating by adding a small amount of water or broth and cover.
  • If reheating turkey in the microwave oven, cover the food and rotate it for even heating. Allow standing time. Check the internal temperature with a food thermometer to be sure it reaches 165° F. Using a microwave to reheat is not recommended for large amounts and can lead to uneven heating.
  • If traveling with a precooked turkey, cooling the turkey as suggested above and use an insulated cooler with enough ice packs to keep the temperature of the turkey below 40° F. Reheat turkey to 165° F when you reach your destination.
  • Gravy made the day before and refrigerated should be reheated to a rolling boil before serving it.

After the meal is completed, either plan to freeze or eat leftover turkey within 3-4 days of the day it was originally prepared. Gravy and stuffing should be eaten within 1-2 days of original preparation date. Do not let turkey, gravy or stuffing sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours after being removed from the oven.

Sources: USDA Poultry Preparation Fact Sheet; UNL Fact Sheet and USDA Turkey Basics Stuffing

Related Topics

Consumer Food Safety