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Turkey basics

Finished turkey in roasting pan.

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

Clean refrigerator with thermometer.

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.

The USDA does not recommend washing your turkey before cooking.

If you must wash the turkey

You have to clean and sanitize sink surrounding countertops. 

  1. Wash sink and countertops with hot soapy water using paper towels. Rinse.
  2. Then sanitize with a bleach solution of 1 teaspoon of bleach per 1 quart of water. Air dry.

Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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