PhotoWith Thanksgiving a little over two weeks off, cooking the traditional turkey dinner gives rise to anxieties and questions. What kind of turkey should I buy? Should I buy a frozen turkey or a fresh one? How do I store my turkey?

A few simple steps will not only ease your holiday fears, but will ensure a delicious and a safe meal for you, your family, and your friends. The following information may help you prepare your special Thanksgiving meal and help you countdown to the holiday.

Plan ahead

Plan your menu several weeks before the holiday. Shopping early will ease the countdown tension for your Thanksgiving meal. Ask these questions to help plan your meal: Do you want a fresh or frozen turkey? Do you have enough space to store a frozen bird if purchased in advance; if not, when should you purchase a turkey? What size bird do you need to buy?

Fresh or frozen

If you choose to buy a frozen bird you may do so at any time, but make sure you have adequate storage space in your freezer. If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure you purchase it only 1-2 days before cooking. Do not buy a prestuffed fresh turkey.

Use the following chart as a helpful guide:

What Size Turkey to Purchase
Type of TurkeyPounds to Buy
Whole bird1 pound per person
Boneless breast of turkey1/2 pound per person
Breast of turkey3/4 pound per person
Prestuffed frozen turkey1 1/4 pounds per person – keep frozen until ready to cook

Thawing

In the refrigerator

Place the frozen bird in the original wrapper in the refrigerator (40 °F or below). Allow approximately 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.

Thawing Time in the Refrigerator
Size of TurkeyNumber of Days
4 to 12 pounds1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds5 to 6 days

In cold water

If you forget to thaw the turkey or don't have room in the refrigerator for thawing, don't panic. You can submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. The following times are suggested for thawing turkey in water. Cook immediately after thawing.

Thawing Time in Cold Water
Size of TurkeyHours to Defrost
4 to 12 pounds2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds10 to 12 hours

In the microwave

Microwave thawing is safe if the turkey is not too large. Check the manufacturer's instructions for the size turkey that will fit into your oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Cook immediately after thawing.

Preparation

The day before Thanksgiving

Make sure you have all the ingredients you need to prepare your holiday meal. Check to make sure you have all the equipment you will need, including a roasting pan large enough to hold your turkey and a food thermometer. Wet and dry stuffing ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated separately. This may also be done on Thanksgiving Day. Mix ingredients just before placing the stuffing inside the turkey cavity or into a casserole dish.

Thanksgiving Day

If you choose to stuff your turkey, stuff loosely. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Place the stuffed turkey in oven immediately. You may also cook the stuffing outside the bird in a casserole. Judging cooking time for your turkey will be easier if the following chart is used. The times listed are for a fresh or thawed turkey in an oven at 325 °F. These times are approximate.

Timetables for Turkey Roasting

(325 °F oven temperature)

Cooking Time — Unstuffed
Size of TurkeyHours to Prepare
8 to 12 pounds2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds4 1/2 to 5 hours
Cooking Time — Stuffed
Size of TurkeyHours to Prepare
8 to 12 pounds3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours

Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey

A whole turkey is safe cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F throughout the bird. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165 °F. The stuffing should reach 165 °F, whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate dish.

When the turkey is removed from the oven, let it stand 20 minutes. Remove the stuffing and carve the turkey.

Storing Leftovers

Cut the turkey into small pieces; refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days or freeze these foods. Reheat thoroughly to a temperature of 165 °F or until hot and steaming.


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