Thanksgiving dinner may look a little different this year, and many may be preparing a turkey for the first time. We receive numerous questions each year about handling a turkey properly. The frequently asked questions below will help ensure a safe and delicious turkey at your Thanksgiving dinner.

1. How much turkey will I need?

Allow one pound of turkey per person.

2. I want to purchase a fresh turkey. How long can I keep a fresh turkey before cooking?

If you purchase a fresh turkey, purchase only one to two days before cooking. You can buy a frozen turkey several weeks before. Just make sure you allow enough time for safe thawing.

3. How do I thaw a frozen turkey?

The USDA recommends three ways to safely thaw food: in the refrigerator, in the sink using the cold water method, or in the microwave. Do not leave the turkey at room temperature to thaw. When a frozen turkey beings to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present on the meat before freezing begins to grow. If the meat stays in the Danger Zone, 40 degrees to 140 degrees F, for more than 2 hours, bacteria can grow rapidly. When thawing in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours for each 4 pounds of turkey (for example, four days for a 16-pound turkey). Place the bird in a large pan to collect any juices that may drip and contaminate other food. Once the turkey is thawed, it should be cooked within two days. The cold water method involves thawing the turkey in a sink of cold water that is changed every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes for each pound of turkey. Be sure to use cold water and wrap the bird securely in a leak-proof bag. Turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing when using the cold water method. When thawing in the microwave, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for defrosting a turkey. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing, as some areas of the bird warm up quickly and begin to cook during the microwave thaw.

4. Should I wash the turkey before cooking?

A common misconception is that washing or rinsing your meat before cooking will make it clean and free of bacteria. However, the USDA does not recommend rinsing and/or soaking raw beef, poultry, pork, lamb, or veal. Bacteria in raw meat products and their juices can spread to other foods and surfaces in the kitchen when you rinse them. Washing may spread any bacteria found in raw meat and poultry juices to other foods and kitchen surfaces. Cooking the turkey to the correct temperature kills bacteria, therefore washing is unnecessary.

5. How do I know the turkey is done?

Cook the turkey until it reaches 165 degrees F. Measure with a metal-stem thermometer. Check the temperature in three places: the thickest part of the breast the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh.

6. Can I cook a frozen turkey?

It is safe to cook a frozen turkey, but it will take at least 50% longer than a fully thawed turkey. Remember to check internal temperature with a meat thermometer.

7. What should I do with leftover turkey?

To store leftovers, cut the turkey into small pieces and refrigerate in shallow containers within two hours of cooking. Leftovers should be used within three to four days. If you do not plan to eat leftovers quickly, freeze them. For best quality, eat within six months of freezing. To reheat thoroughly, a temperature of 165 degrees F is recommended.

Check out the Talking Turkey episode of the Talking FACS Podcast to learn more or contact the Caldwell County Extension Office and request the Talking Turkey publications.

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