3 Ways to Safely Prepare Your Turkey – 2021 Guide

With the hustle and bustle around preparing a Thanksgiving meal and weighing COVID-19 safety concerns, it is easy to overlook the proper safety steps for preparing a turkey. Whether you’re a business preparing for Thanksgiving catering orders, or an individual tasked with hosting friends and family, it is crucial to consider these safety steps.

There are many different types of turkeys on the market today – from natural, kosher, free-range, organic, fresh, plant-based or frozen. When dealing with a frozen turkey in particular, food safety measures must be taken. While frozen, the turkey can be consumed for up to 2-6 months for best quality; however, when you choose to begin to thaw your bird, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow. As soon as you purchase the turkey, it is important to store it in the freezer as soon as possible. The key to thawing meat or poultry safely is by avoiding the “danger zone” – which is the temperature range between 40ºF and 140ºF, or where bacteria grows rapidly. Leaving your meat or poultry on the counter for more than 2 hours encourages the danger zone; therefore, to ensure food safety, there are 3 ways to thaw your bird according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. 

Image of refrigerator, cold water tap, and microwave
1. Refrigerator

Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator requires planning ahead, as approximately 24 hours are needed for each 4-5 pounds of the turkey in a refrigerator that is set to 40ºF or below. Once the turkey has thawed, it can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. Place the turkey in a container or leak-proof bag to prevent juices from contaminating other foods in your refrigerator. 

Refrigerator thawing times:

  • 4-12 pounds → 1-3 days 
  • 12-16 pounds → 3-4 days 
  • 16-20 pounds → 4-5 days 
  • 20-24 pounds → 5-6 days 
2. In cold water 

Before starting this method, be sure that your turkey is stored in a leak-proof plastic bag to avoid cross contamination and prevent the turkey from absorbing water. Once the turkey is sealed, submerge the bird in cold tap water, allowing 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thaw. Be sure to change the cold water every 30 minutes until the turkey is fully thawed, as warm water could lead to bacteria growth. Once the turkey is ready, it needs to be cooked immediately. 

Cold water thawing times:

  • 4-12 pounds → 2-6 hours
  • 12-16 pounds → 6-8 hours
  • 16-20 pounds → 8-10 hours
  • 20-24 pounds → 10-12 hours
3. Microwave oven 

Depending on the size of your bird, your microwave’s defrost setting can thaw your turkey. As this method varies based on your microwave, simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions when defrosting. When using this method, plan to cook your turkey immediately after thawing as some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during this process.

Cleaning, Cooking, and Storing 

Now that your turkey is safely thawed, it is imperative to clean any utensils, plates, countertops, and cutting boards that the raw turkey came in contact with by using warm, soapy water. Because bacteria can be present inside and outside of a turkey, be sure to keep dishes that touch the raw food separate from fresh food. Remember to properly and frequently wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water, especially between handling the turkey and other foods. We outline additional food safety measures in our ultimate guide to digital food safety.

The only way to destroy the bacteria on the turkey completely is by cooking the bird thoroughly. Bacteria that cause foodborne illness cannot be smelled or tasted. In order to determine if your bird has reached food safety, you will need a meat thermometer. Your bird is not safe to eat until it reaches 165ºF in three places: the thicket part of the breast, innermost part of the wing, and innermost part of the thigh. Unfortunately, you cannot tell if your turkey is safely done cooking just by the color. Once your bird has reached 165ºF in all three locations, let the turkey rest for 20 minutes before beginning to carve. If you’re a business and have temperature monitoring needs that extend beyond holiday meal prep, check out Squadle’s bluetooth temperature monitoring technology.

CDC featured photo: "Always use food thermometer to make sure turkey is cooked thoroughly, to 165ºF"

After all your hard work has been completed, it is time to dig in! Enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, and don’t forget to refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours so they can stay safe and delicious! The rest of your turkey should be sliced into smaller pieces and stored in a separate container. Once your leftovers are placed in containers, they are safe in the fridge for 3-4 days and in the freezer for 2-6 months for optimal quality. If you need to travel back home, be sure to bring a cooler to pack leftovers. 

Source: Food Safety by Events and Seasons