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Health Department

Safe Handling and Preparation of Turkeys

In the United States, each year as many as 76 million people become ill after consuming contaminated food. A large majority of those illnesses are the result of poor food protection practices in the home. Here are several tips regarding the safe handling and preparation of turkeys.

Should you buy a fresh or frozen turkey? There are no significant differences between the two; just a matter of preference. There are some important tips to remember when shopping for a turkey. First, it must have the USDA inspection mark signifying that it is a USDA inspected product. Second, look for the sell by date, which indicates the last day the turkey should be sold. The bird will maintain optimal quality and safety for one or two days after this date. As soon as you get home, refrigerate the fresh turkey immediately at 40° F or below and prepare it within 48 hours.

If you are purchasing a frozen turkey, look for one that is frozen solid. Upon arriving home, store the bird in the freezer at approximately 0° F. Thaw the turkey in its original wrapping on a tray in the refrigerator. It must be thawed for 24 hours for each five pounds of weight. Do not thaw at room temperature! Thawing at room temperature promotes profuse multiplication of bacteria to dangerous levels.

Once thawed, the turkey requires little preparation before cooking. The neck and giblets should be removed from the body cavity. Wash all parts with cold water and drain well. To insure that bacteria is not spread, wash your hands, utensils and sink with hot soapy water after they have come in contact with the uncooked bird. Also, add a tablespoon of bleach to each gallon of soapy water to insure adequate disinfecting. We recommend that the stuffing (dressing) be baked separately in a grease pan or casserole dish during the last hour while the turkey cooks. The dressing must reach an internal temperature of 165° F. Refer to the labeling for cooking instructions for the turkey. Plan the cooking time so it will be done approximately 20 minutes before serving.

Is it done? When the temperature in the inner thigh of the whole turkey reaches 185° F, it is done. Let the thermometer rest in the bird for a few minutes to provide adequate time to react. Also, doneness can be determined by inserting a fork into the thickest area of the inner thigh. If the juices run clear, not pink, the bird is done.

Leftovers - As soon as the meal has concluded, hopefully in less than two hours, cut the meat from the bone. Slice the breast meat. The legs and wings may be left whole. Refrigerate the turkey meat and dressing in separate shallow containers to enhance the cooling rate. When reserving, reheat all products in excess of 165° F.

Recommended storage times for leftovers in the refrigerator:

  1. Cooked turkey 3-4 days
  2. Dressing and gravy 1-2 days
  3. Other cooked dishes 3-4 days

If you have questions, contact the Food Protection Services Division at the Metropolitan Public Health Department at 615-340-5620.