How to cook a turkey safely

Proper planning will give you a fabulous turkey dinner. Most people will buy a turkey frozen so the first steps are how to thaw the turkey correctly.

Thawing turkey

It is recommended that you do not thaw a turkey at room temperature. Keep the turkey in the original wrapping.There are two ways to thaw the turkey that work well and will keep your turkey fresh.

  • Refrigerator - Place your turkey in the refrigerator and allow five hours per pound to defrost. This ties up a lot of space for a long time so most people prefer the cold water method.
  • Cold water - In a large container cover your turkey completely with cold water. Change the water completely every hour and allow one hour per pound defrosting time. An alternative method is to have a slow trickle of ice water running over the turkey as it defrosts with the drain allowing run-off. Often a tea towel is used to make sure that the bird is kept evenly moist.

If you have purchased a frozen pre-stuffed turkey then you do not thaw. Cook this bird from the frozen state and check the product label for further instructions.

If you have purchased a fresh turkey remove giblets and refrigerate in covered container. You must cook the bird within two days.

Cleaning turkey

  • Completely remove plastic wrap from your thawed turkey.
  • Remove the neck and giblets from the bird, usually stored in the neck area.
  • Check the bird for pin feathers on the skin and remove.
  • Check the inside cavity for little veins, other bits that can be removed to make a clean inside cavity.
  • Rinse turkey well inside and out with cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels.

Handling raw turkey cautions

  • Check your tools. Is your cutting board and other utensils free of cracks and in good repair?
  • Be sure to wash hands thoroughly in hot soapy water before and after preparing foods and handling any raw meat.
  • Do not let raw meat juices touch ready-to-eat foods during preparation or in the refrigerator.
  • Do not put foods on the same plate that held the raw meat until after plate is washed.
  • Wash all dishes, surfaces and utensils you have used for cutting turkey with hot soapy water. A good sanitizing solution of one capful of chlorine bleach in 4 cups of warm water is recommended. Then rinse surfaces, dishes and utensils with hot water.

Storing turkey

  • A whole turkey can be frozen for one year. Turkey parts can be frozen for six months. Once you have thawed the turkey then treat it as fresh turkey and do not refreeze until it is cooked.
  • Cooked turkey may be stored in a covered container, plastic bag or wrapped in aluminum foil for up to four days in the refrigerator. It freezes well for up to three months. Often turkey is covered with gravy when frozen to help keep it moist when reheated.
  • After the turkey is cooked, keep it hot, above 140ºF or refrigerate below 40ºF. Do not leave turkey at room temperature for more than two hours.

Cooking turkey

  • Preheat your oven to 325ºF.
  • If you are stuffing the turkey then stuff it lightly and just before it goes into the oven. Never stuff turkey the day or night before. There are inexpensive stuffing bags that you can purchase. You put the bag in the bird's cavities and then stuff, lightly sew up the bag or tie it. This will help you to quickly and completely remove the stuffing when the bird is done.
  • You can put the stuffing in a covered baking dish. Place it in the oven during the last 30 minutes of the turkey's roasting time. It will not have the turkey juices so add extra liquid.
  • Place the turkey breast side up in the pan whether it is a shallow pan or a roaster. Using a turkey rack will help you to lift the bird out safely.
  • Use an oven-safe meat thermometer. Insert it into the thickest part of the inner thigh just above but not touching the thigh bone.
  • Roasting is a matter of taste. Your can cover the bird in the roaster but be sure that there is lots of room at the top. Or you can cover the bird loosely with foil or roast it uncovered.
  • If you like to baste your bird then this should not be done more than once an hour as it reduces the heat in your oven and will slow cooking time.
  • Cook your turkey for about 20 minutes per pound (Canadians multiply the kilograms by 2.2 to get total pounds), until the meat thermometer reads 170ºF for an unstuffed turkey or 180ºF for a stuffed turkey.
  • Remove the turkey from oven when cooking is completed and let stand for 15-20 minutes before you carve it. This will allow the juices to settle. Remember, turkey should not be left out more than two hours before refrigerating.