Tips for thawing, storing, and cooking a Thanksgiving turkey (plus sides)

Thanksgiving may look a little different this year for many of us. Are you planning to cook a turkey?

Here are some shopping tips and advice to safely prepare and cook yours. And keep scrolling for some of our favorite vegetable-rich side dish recipes.

Shopping for a turkey?

Here’s what to expect from some common labels on poultry and meat:

  • Natural: “Natural” meat and poultry contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is no more than “minimally processed.” But “natural” tells you nothing about how an animal was raised, what it was fed, or whether it got antibiotics or hormones.
  • Organic: No growth hormones or antibiotics, fed organic feed with no animal byproducts, and animals have some outdoor access.
  •  No added antibiotics: The animal was raised without antibiotics. (Sick animals that need antibiotics are treated, but their meat cannot carry a “no antibiotics” or “organic” claim.)
  • No added hormones: The claim is meaningless for chickens or turkeys, since farmers are prohibited from giving those animals hormones. For cows or pigs, the claim means that they were not given hormones.
  • Free range: Hens weren’t confined in cages and they have some access to the outdoors. (The outdoor area may be covered with netting.)

(The USDA doesn’t precisely define some of these claims, but most labels have to explain them, and the USDA must approve meat and poultry labels.)

Buying frozen? How to properly thaw:

Turkey, or any other meat, should never be defrosted on the counter. The safest way to thaw your turkey is in the refrigerator, so plan ahead: Turkeys need approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of weight. Put the bird on a plate, to catch any liquid as it thaws.

Once thawed, cook your bird within 1 to 2 days or refreeze.

Is it safer to rinse off the turkey before cooking?

Nope. Water can splash bacteria from the raw turkey onto countertops, other food, towels, and you. It’s best to transfer the turkey straight from package to pan. The heat from cooking will kill any bugs.

Cooking your turkey

A few tips:

  • Only cook a turkey once it’s completely thawed.
  • Your oven temperature should never be lower than 325°F.
  • Use a food thermometer (not just a pop-up thermometer on the turkey) in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, the thickest part of the breast, and in any stuffing. The thermometer should read at least 165°F. 

Planning ahead? These are approximate cooking times for turkey, but use the thermometer to check when yours is done:

For a higher-quality roast, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes to allow the juices to set. The bird will also carve more easily.

Cooking stuffing

The safest way to cook stuffing is on the stove or in the oven—separate from the turkey.

If you cook the stuffing inside the bird, loosely stuff the turkey just before you put it in the oven, with three-quarters of a cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165˚F.

Cleaning up after the meal

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly. Turkey and all perishable foods (like salads, sides, etc.) should be left out for no more than 2 hours.

Why? Leaving cooked food at room temperature is an invitation for bacteria that can cause food poisoning—like Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus—to multiply. And reheating the leftovers won’t destroy their toxins or spores.

Looking for vegetables?

Whether your main dish this Thanksgiving is turkey, Tofurky, or lentils, our Healthy Cook, Kate Sherwood, has you covered with plenty of seasonal recipes for salads and sides:

Sources: CSPI, USDA’s Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety?; Turkey from Farm to Table.

This post has been updating to include information about labeling claims on meat and poultry.

Photo: BVDC/stock.adobe.com.

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7 Replies to “Tips for thawing, storing, and cooking a Thanksgiving turkey (plus sides)”

  1. Loved the article, very informative. I just have one questions, we have always been told to remove the bones from any leftover trukey before storing in fridge or freezing it, is this necessary?

    1. I have never heard of doing this before. What do the bones have to do with storing the turkey or freezing it? I always put everything into the fridge as soon as possible after the meal is done. We always had a leftover night the next day, where anyone could come back for leftovers. It was then that the “picking on the bones” happened. No one took the time to pick on a bone during the holiday meal, but the day after, was less formal and no one felt bad about elbows on the table knawing on a turkey bone! To have taken all the bones out of the leftover turkey would have spoiled many years of bone picking enjoyment!

  2. Your turkey story suggests refreezing after thawing if you are not going to cook it immediately. This is in the paragraph under Buying frozen? I thought refreezing thawed meat was dangerous and definitely a no- no unless you cook and then freeze. I think you should clarify this sentence.

    1. Hi Maureen,

      The USDA says that it is safe to refreeze an uncooked turkey that was thawed in the refrigerator, but that there may be some loss of quality. Turkey that was thawed in cold water must be cooked before it is refrozen. For more information, click the link “Turkey Raised by the Rules” in our sources list.

    2. I also questioned that statement about refreezing a thawed turkey. I always thought that NO meat should be thawed and refrozen unless it was cooked first. I think I will stick to my rule and not refreeze any meat that has been defrosted, without cooking it first.

  3. Very informative, and great advice. I always enjoy your healthy articles and tips. It’s always wonderful to have feedback too. The questions and comments are so helpful. Some of the questions are ones many of us thought of asking, but didn’t. Thanks to you we get prompt and truthful answers. That’s really a plus. Keep it going please.

  4. In the last few years brining the turkey ahead of cooking has become popular. Does it increase the sodium content of the cooked turkey?

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