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How to Safely Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey

Updated on July 21, 2019
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This author is a mum of two beautiful, cupcake-loving daughters, figuring out parenting (and baking) one day at a time!

A Guide to How To Cook The Perfect Thanksgiving or Christmas Turkey.

Every year thousands of people become ill with food poisoning as a result of inadequately cooked turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving. On this page I will tell you how to cook a turkey so that it not only tastes perfectly succulent and delicious, but so that it is perfectly safe for your family to eat too.

Christmas or Thanksgiving Turkey
Christmas or Thanksgiving Turkey

How To Correctly Defrost A Turkey

Firstly, if you have a fresh turkey it's important to store it properly. Always keep it refrigerated after purchase and do not attempt to store it on the kitchen bench or in an unrefrigerated pantry. If you have a frozen turkey you need to defrost it before you cook it. This MUST be done in the refrigerator as this is the only safe way to defrost a turkey.

  • Be prepared – it can several days for a large turkey to thaw. Plan how long it will take for your turkey to defrost and get it out of the freezer in time.
  • To defrost - remove all packaging from your turkey and place it in a large, covered dish or plate. Place it at the bottom of the fridge so that the juices can't drip onto other foods.
  • Pour away any liquid that comes out of the turkey while it is defrosting to stop it spreading bacteria. Be careful not to splash the liquid onto worktops, dishes, cloths or other food and take care to wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Before cooking and when you think the bird is defrosted, make sure there aren't any ice crystals left inside the turkey's body. Test with a fork to tell whether the meat feels frozen.

How Long Does A Turkey Take To Defrost?

Firstly, Check the turkey packaging for defrosting time. If there aren't any defrosting instructions, use the following times to calculate roughly how long it will take to defrost your turkey.

  • in a fridge at 4ºC (39ºF), allow approximately 10 to 12 hours per kg of turkey

When your turkey is defrosted, store it in the fridge until you are ready to cook it.

Preparing Your Turkey For Cooking

Keep uncooked turkey separate from cooked food. If raw turkey touches cooked food or drips on to food that won't be thoroughly cooked before eating then bacteria which cause food poisoning could spread. These bacteria can also contaminate worktops, dishes, utensils, cloths and chopping boards, so clean them thoroughly if they come into contact with raw poultry meat.

  • Always wash your hands with hot water and soap after touching raw turkey.
  • Do not wash your turkey before your cook it. Bacteria from raw poultry can splash onto worktops, dishes and other foods during washing and spread them around your kitchen.
  • Never use the same chopping board for raw turkey and cooked food without washing it thoroughly in hot soapy water first. Use a separate chopping board just for raw meat and poultry and mark it so that you know which is which. Many stores offer coloured chopping boards to help you identify which boards are for which foods.

Cooking Your Thanksgiving Turkey

A large turkey can take several hours to cook properly so plan your meal times at least one day before you plan to eat. Eating undercooked turkey or turkey that has been incorrectly stored or not cooked at the right temperature could cause food poisoning.

Use a food thermometer like the one below to make sure that the thickest part of the meat reaches at least 70°C for two minutes.

Turkey Cooking Time Guidelines

For safety's sake it's better to cook stuffing separately, rather than inside the bird. Cooking a turkey with stuffing inside can make it take longer to cook.

As a general guide, in an oven preheated to 180ºC (350ºF, Gas Mark 4):

  • allow 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes for a turkey under 4.5kg
  • allow 40 minutes per kg for a turkey that's between 4.5kg and 6.5kg
  • allow 35 minutes per kg for a turkey of more than 6.5kg

Or from the FSIS website for US readers:

(325 °F oven temperature)

UNSTUFFED (time in hours)

  • 4 to 6 lb. breast — 1 1/2 to 2 1/4
  • 6 to 8 lb. breast — 2 1/4 to 3 1/4
  • 8 to 12 lbs. — 2 3/4 to 3
  • 12 to 14 lbs. — 3 to 3 3/4
  • 14 to 18 lbs. — 3 3/4 to 4 1/4
  • 18 to 20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 1/2
  • 20 to 24 lbs. — 4 1/2 to 5

STUFFED (time in hours)

  • 8 to 12 lbs. — 3 to 3 1/2
  • 12 to 14 lbs. — 3 1/2 to 4
  • 14 to 18 lbs. — 4 to 4 1/4
  • 18 to 20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 3/4
  • 20 to 24 lbs. — 4 3/4 to 5 1/4

Cover your turkey with foil during cooking and uncover only for the last 30 minutes to brown the skin. To stop the meat drying out, baste the turkey every hour. Use a large spoon, tilt the tray to collect the juices and then pour them over the bird as it cooks.

© 2017 Rachel Thomas


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