Extension Logo
Extension Logo
University of Minnesota Extension

Turkey basics

Quick facts

  • Frozen turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator to prevent harmful bacteria growth.
  • Cook turkey to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
  • Use safe food handling practices to prevent cross-contamination.


Turkey is a lean protein source. A 3-ounce portion of lean protein has less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards.

Whole or ground, roasted, skinless white and dark meat turkey provide similar nutrition for a 3-ounce portion:

  • Calories: 135
  • Total Fat: 3 grams
  • Saturated Fat: 1 gram
  • Cholesterol: 89 milligrams
  • Sodium: 86 milligrams
  • Protein: 25 grams

Eating the cooked skin adds 30 calories, 3 grams of total fat, and 0.8 grams of saturated fat to a 3-ounce serving.

Turkey gizzard, heart, and liver can provide an additional 5 to 10 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving, but add 70 to 300 milligrams of cholesterol.

Choosing the right sized turkey

During cooking, turkey can lose between one-quarter to one-third of its raw weight and size. This is from water lost during cooking. Turkey cooked at a high temperature or for too long will lose more water than turkey cooked at a medium temperature.

Start with the following amounts of raw turkey to yield approximately 3 ounces of cooked turkey per person:

  • Raw, ground: 4 to 5 ounces
  • Raw, whole, boneless: 5 ounces
  • Raw, whole, bone-in: 8 ounces
  • Raw, whole turkey: 1 pound per person

Thawing the turkey

Thawing turkey in the refrigerator is the best method. The internal temperature of food thawed in the refrigerator will stay below the Temperature Danger Zone. See How to thaw frozen foods safely for additional details.

Allow up to 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey to thaw in the refrigerator.

To wash or not to wash?

Washing poultry (like turkey) before preparing is a common practice. There are a variety of reasons people choose to wash or rinse a turkey. Because of changes in farming, butchery and processing practices, washing poultry and meats at home is no longer necessary and is not recommended by the USDA.

Washing turkey, as well as other poultry and meats, can spread harmful bacteria to multiple surfaces in a kitchen. Harmful bacteria can be spread by water splashing out of the sink onto counters, utensils and other foods. This is called cross-contamination. Read more about the USDA’s Poultry Washing Study.

Following safe food handling practices, proper hand washing, and thoroughly cooking foods are effective in preventing cross-contamination. This reduces the risk of foodborne illness.

If you choose to wash or rinse turkey before preparing, take steps to reduce the risk of foodborne illness:

  • Clean the sink, including the faucet handles and the drain, and counters with hot soapy water. Rinse with water.
  • Sanitize the area with a bleach solution. Add 1 teaspoon of unscented regular chlorine bleach or 3/4 teaspoon of ultra chlorine bleach to 1 quart of water.
  • Let the surfaces air-dry.
  • Wash hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds after handling the raw turkey and after cleaning the area.

Safely stuffing a whole turkey

Stuffing, also called dressing or filling, can be a food safety risk if not handled and cooked properly.

Stuffing may contain raw ingredients that must be cooked to a safe temperature. When stuffed inside a raw turkey, the juices from the turkey are absorbed by the filling and need to be cooked thoroughly.

Refer to the USDA’s guide, Stuffing and Food Safety, for details on safely preparing and cooking stuffing.

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, consider cooking the stuffing separately from the turkey. Cook to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F for 15 seconds. Serve the stuffing on the side.

Safe cooking guidelines

There are many ways to cook turkey, such as roasting, braising, grilling and deep frying. No matter what preparation method and recipe is used, the final minimum internal cooking temperature must be 165 degrees F for 15 seconds. Thoroughly cooking turkey kills harmful bacteria such as Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium perfringens, and Salmonella, which can cause foodborne illness when eaten.

  • Use a food thermometer to check the temperature. Color alone is not a good indicator of doneness.
  • Before and after handling raw turkey, wash your hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use separate plates and utensils for handling raw and cooked turkey to prevent cross-contamination
  • Refer to the USDA’s guides for roasting whole turkey and other cooking methods for turkey for recommendations.

Storing leftover turkey safely

  • Cool leftover cooked turkey to 41 degrees F or below within 2 hours of cooking to prevent harmful bacteria growth.
  • Quickly cool large quantities of leftovers by dividing them into smaller amounts in shallow containers, and loosely covering them in the refrigerator until chilled.
  • Once chilled, tightly cover the food.
  • Use refrigerated leftover turkey within 3 to 4 days after cooking.
  • Store leftovers for longer in the freezer.
  • Reheat leftover foods to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F for 15 seconds.

Authors: Amy Johnston, Extension educator, and Suzanne Driessen

Reviewed in 2023

Page survey

© 2024 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.