Next week many families will enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal. For many that will include a juicy turkey, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, green bean casserole, English peas, apple pie, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie and the list goes on and on and on.

Generally the turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. So, let me share with you some timely cooking tips from the Mississippi State University Extension Service and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Let’s break the process into Pre-Roasting Preparation, Roasting, Leftover Storage, and Basic Food Safety.

Pre-Roasting Preparation

Don’t be deceived, turkeys take up lots of room in the refrigerator or freezer!

Will you purchase a frozen or fresh turkey? For either allow 1 pound per person. If buying fresh turkey, then make your purchase 1-2 days before cooking. If buying frozen of course you can buy anytime, but you must keep it frozen until you are ready to thaw properly.

There a three methods for thawing: refrigerator (40 degrees Fahrenheit), cold water, and microwave.

If thawing a whole turkey in the refrigerator allow about 24 hours per 5 pounds. For example an 8-12 pound turkey will take 1-3 days. Leave the turkey in the original packaging and place it in a pan to catch juices as it thaws. You can store the thawed turkey in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.

If you choose to thaw your whole turkey in cold water you will need to change the water every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes per pound. So an 8-12 pound turkey will take 4-6 hours to thaw. Once the turkey is thawed, remove the neck and giblets, wash the turkey inside and out with cold water and drain. When using the cold water method, cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

The third thawing method is using your microwave. First, make sure the turkey will fit! If so, then check the manufacturer’s instructions for the minutes per pound and the power level to use for thawing. Take the turkey out of the wrapping and place in a microwave-safe dish. The turkey should be cooked immediately following microwave thawing.

Remember to remove the giblets from the turkey after thawing and cook them separately. Also, be sure to wash (with hot soapy water) your hands, the sink, any utensils, and anything that comes in contact with the raw turkey and its juices.

If you purchase a prestuffed frozen turkey, it should be cooked from frozen and not defrosted. Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys. If not handled properly, any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiply very quickly.


For roasting a whole turkey… Set your oven to 325 degrees. Place your thawed or fresh turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan with the breast side up. For optimum safety and uniform results, cook the stuffing outside the bird. However, if you choose to stuff the bird, stuff it loosely. Once you stuff your turkey, cook it immediately. The whole turkey is safe to eat when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees when measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook turkey to higher temperatures. Below is a chart with estimated cooking times.

Remember to use a thermometer for accuracy. You cannot tell by looking at the turkey!

If your roasting pan does not have a lid, you may place a tent of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the turkey for the first 1 to 1 ½ hours. This allows for maximum heat circulation, keeps the turkey moist, and reduces oven splatter. To prevent overbrowning, foil may also be placed over the turkey after it reaches the desired color.

Timetables for Turkey Roasting


4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1½ to 3¼ hours

8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours

20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours


6 to 8 pounds (breast) 2½ to 3½ hours

8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3½ hours

12 to 14 pounds 3½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4¾ hours

20 to 24 pounds 4¾ to 5¼ hours

For better taste and easier carving, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set. The dressing or stuffing whether cooked inside the bird or in a baking dish should be cooked to 165 degrees as well.

Leftover Storage

If your family is like mine, you will have leftovers.

By this stage, your bellies may be full, and maybe you’ve had an afternoon nap. Hold on before you nap, because if you don’t, then your leftovers may not be safe to eat.

To store the turkey, debone it and refrigerate in a shallow container within 2 hours of cooking. The leftover turkey and stuffing should be used with 3 to 4 days and the gravy within 1 to 2 days. You may freeze these leftovers if you can’t consume them in the recommended time. If freezing leftovers, use them within 2 to 6 months for best quality. Reheat leftovers thoroughly to 165 degrees or until how and steaming.

Food Safety

When preparing the family meal, food safety is a must. No one wants a trip to the ER for food poisoning or a serious burn!

Here’s some basics. Hot foods should be kept hot, and cold foods should be kept cold. Wash your hands frequently and after touching your hair or face. Turkeys roasting in the oven are heavy and hot, so be prepared with the proper hot pads when removing the turkey from the oven. Be sure you have prepared a place to set the hot turkey.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and if you follow the tips above you’ll have a great time as you gobble, gobble up your turkey!

For more information about food safety, contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854. Or

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