Cooking the Thanksgiving turkey

Published 11:23 am Monday, November 22, 2021

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UT Extension Agent

As Thanksgiving approaches, planning and preparing for the holiday dinner can result in anxiety and questions. What kind of turkey should you buy? Should you buy a frozen or fresh turkey? How do you store the turkey? A few simple steps will ease holiday fears and ensure a delicious and a safe meal for family and friends. The following tips may help you prepare a successful and safe holiday meal.

Thanksgiving Turkey Tips
• Plan ahead. Cut down on holiday anxiety and stress by planning ahead. Plan the menu two to three weeks before the holiday. Shopping early for your Thanksgiving meal will ease the countdown tension.

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• Fresh or Frozen? That is one of the Thanksgiving turkey questions. There is no difference in quality between a fresh or frozen turkey. You can buy a frozen turkey in advance and take advantage of special sales. Fresh turkeys provide convenience because they don’t require thawing, but they have shorter shelf lives. Before buying, make sure there is enough space in the refrigerator or freezer.

• When to buy the bird. A whole frozen turkey takes about 24 hours per four to five pounds to thaw in the refrigerator. Purchase a frozen turkey as far in advance as necessary to safely thaw it in the refrigerator. If buying fresh, purchase it only one to two days before the meal and keep it refrigerated.

• How do you know when it’s done? A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) throughout, as measured with a food thermometer. Insert a food thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast, not touching bone to measure the temperature.

Carving and food safety
Worried about food safety when carving and serving turkey?It’s best to let the turkey rest for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set, and it will carve easier. Use a clean cutting board that has a well to catch juices. Make sure the knife is sharp before you start carving.

Storing leftovers. It’s important to store leftover turkey (cut into smaller pieces) in shallow containers and put them in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of cooking.

Use refrigerated leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy within three to four days. If freezing leftovers, use within 2 to 6 months for best quality. Reheat leftovers thoroughly to 165 °F.

Who you gonna call?
The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (English or Spanish) will be staffed with food safety specialists on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time to answer your turkey questions. It is open year-round Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET. Call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at: 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), or send an Email to:

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