Tips for buying, storing, and cooking your Thanksgiving turkey

In charge of cooking a turkey next week? Here are some tips on how to buy your bird and safely prepare and cook it.

Buying your bird: Label claims 101

Here’s what some label claims you might see on packaged turkeys mean, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Fresh turkeys haven’t been stored at a temperature below 26°F. Frozen turkeys are rapidly frozen in blast freezers and stored at 0°F or below.

Natural or All natural means that the turkey does not contain any artificial flavors or colors, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients.

Tip: “Natural” turkeys cannot be more than minimally processed, but they could still contain added salt solution. (Minimally processed means that the product is not fundamentally altered from its original state, but can include “traditional” cooking processes that make food edible like roasting, smoking, freezing, drying, etc.)

Organic means that the turkey was produced following federal organic standards, and that the process was verified by an on-site audit.

Free-range or free-roaming turkeys means that the turkeys have continuous access to the outdoors for more than half of their lives.

No added antibiotics means that the turkey was raised without antibiotics in its feed and water and was not injected with antibiotics.

No hormones added doesn’t make a turkey better than one that doesn’t make that claim. Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry.

Buying frozen? Here’s 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. Once thawed, cook your bird within 1 to 2 days or refreeze.

For a quicker thaw, you can wrap your turkey in a leak-proof package and submerge it in cold water, making sure to change the water every half hour. It will take approximately 30 minutes per pound for it to completely thaw. Then, cook your turkey immediately, even if you plan to refreeze it after cooking.

Is it safer to rinse off the turkey before cooking?

Nope. Many bacteria are quite loosely attached to the birds. Water can splash the bugs onto countertops, other food, towels, and you. It’s best to transfer the turkey straight from package to pan. The heat required for cooking will kill any bacteria.

Cooking and storing your turkey

Turkeys should only be cooked once they are completely thawed. Your oven temperature should never be lower than 325°F.

Cook the turkey to at least 165°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 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.)

These are approximate cooking times for turkey, but use a 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.

Cleaning up after the big meal

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly. Turkey and all perishable foods should be left out for no more than 2 hours.

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.)

Have a question?

If you have a question about meat, poultry, or egg, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-674-6854. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET (8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day).

Or email your question to MPHotline.fsis@usda.gov.

Bon Appétit!

Sources: USDA’s Turkey Raised by the Rules; Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety?; Turkey from Farm to Table.

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7 Replies to “Tips for buying, storing, and cooking your Thanksgiving turkey”

  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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