Turkey is the center of many traditional holiday meals. First, choose the right sized turkey for your gathering. Thaw the turkey safely using one of our 3 recommended methods. Don't wash the turkey before roasting because washing can spread bacteria around your kitchen (proper cooking kills any bacteria on the turkey). Cook stuffing outside the turkey to ensure it reaches a safe temperature. Since turkeys are cooking faster than before, see our roasting section for cooking times. Lastly, refrigerate any leftover turkey within 2 hours of cooking.
Turkey provides protein along with other key nutrients. A serving is 3 ounces cooked poultry (about the size of a deck of cards). One serving of roasted, skinless turkey provides:
- 129 calories.
- .9 grams saturated fat.
- 64 milligrams cholesterol.
- 59 milligrams sodium.
- 25 grams protein.
- 1.5 milligrams iron.
Choose the right sized turkey
Use the following chart as a helpful guide to determine how much turkey you need:
- Whole bird - 1 pound per person.
- Boneless turkey breast - ½ pound per person.
- Turkey breast - ¾ pound per person.
Thawing your turkey
While thawing, turkey must be kept at a safe temperature (below 40 F). There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey:
1. Thaw in the refrigerator.
- Allow 24 hours of thawing for every 5 pounds of turkey.
4-12 pound turkey = 1 to 3 days.
12-16 pound turkey = 3 to 4 days.
16-20 pound turkey = 4 to 5 days.
20-24 pound turkey = 5 to 6 days.
Once completely thawed, cook within 1 to 2 days.
2. Thaw in cold water.
- Place breast side down in its unwrapped wrapper in enough cold water to completely cover.
- Change water every 30 minutes to keep surface cool.
- Allow 30 minutes for every pound of turkey.
- 4-12 pound turkey = 2 to 6 hours.
- 12-16 pound turkey = 6 to 8 hours.
- 16-20 pound turkey = 8 to 10 hours.
- 20-24 pound turkey = 10 to 12 hours.
- Cook immediately after thawing.
3. Thaw in the microwave Oven.
- Check your microwave's instruction book.
- Cook immediately after thawing.
To wash or not to wash?
Review of studies from several universities related to washing meat and poultry indicates that there is no benefit. In fact, washing can allow bacteria on meat and poultry to spread to other ready-to-eat foods. Therefore, the USDA does not recommend washing your turkey before cooking. Cooking to proper temperature will destroy any bacteria present.
If you must wash the turkey
You have to clean and sanitize sink surrounding countertops.
- Wash sink and countertops with hot soapy water using paper towels. Rinse.
- Then sanitize with a bleach solution of 1 teaspoon of bleach per 1 quart of water. Air dry.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stuffing a turkey is an invitation for trouble. You risk the possibility of foodborne illness. The stuffing may not reach the 165 F temperature needed to kill bacteria.
The University of Georgia tested turkeys to determine cooking times and techniques. The study concluded that stuffing should be cooked outside the bird since there is no guarantee that the stuffing will reach 165 F at the same time the turkey reaches this temperature. If the stuffing has not reached 165 F when the turkey is done, further cooking will be required. Therefore, the meat may be overcooked. For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately. You can get the same flavor if you precook stuffing to 165 F. Then loosely stuff into the turkey during the last half-hour of cooking.
If you must stuff the turkey
Follow these basic rules:
- Prepare the stuffing just before placing in the bird.
- Cook and cool all protein products (i.e. sausage, eggs, giblets and root vegetables like celery and onions) before adding to other stuffing ingredients.
- Stuff turkey loosely -- about ¾ cup of stuffing per pound of turkey.
- The stuffing should be moist, rather than dry. Heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a wet environment.
- Place stuffed turkey immediately in an oven set no lower than 325 F.
- The center of the stuffing must reach 165 F after roasting.
- If you don't use a food thermometer, do not stuff the bird. Without a food thermometer, there is no way to visually check whether the stuffing has reached the correct temperature.
Be sure the turkey is completely thawed.
Place turkey breast-side up on a rack in a shallow roasting pan (2-2½ inches deep).
Lightly coat the skin with oil, shortening or vegetable cooking spray to prevent skin from drying out.
Internal temperatures must reach a minimum of 165 F in the thigh and thickest part of the breast before removing from oven. (Cooking turkey to higher temperature [170 F breast, 180 F thigh] yields a golden, tender bird.)
Let bird stand 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to absorb back into the meat.
Turkeys are cooking faster than before
Approximate cooking times for turkeys at 325 F
|Weight (pounds)||Unstuffed (hours)||Stuffed (hours)|
|4 – 8 (breast)||1½ – 3¼||2½ – 3½|
|8 – 12||2¾ – 3||3 – 3½|
|12 - 14||3– 3¾||3½ – 4|
|14 - 18||3¾ – 4¼||4 – 4¼|
|18 – 20||4¼ – 4½||4¼ – 4¾|
|20 – 24||4½ – 5||4¾ – 5¼|
Cooking a partially thawed or frozen turkey
- Frozen pre-stuffed turkeys - Do not thaw before cooking. Cook according to package directions.
- Remove wrapping before placing in oven.
- Add 50% additional cooking time per above chart.
- After 3½ hours carefully remove giblet package.
- Refrigerate all leftovers in shallow containers (2-3 inches deep) within 2 hours of cooking.
- Use leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy within within 3 to 4 days.
- Use frozen turkey, stuffing and gravy within 2 to 6 months for best flavor.
- Reheat leftovers to 165 F or until hot and steaming.
Reviewed in 2018