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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Holidays


Purchasing, thawing and cooking your turkey

Adapted from materials written by Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Roasted turkey with meat thermometerMany people only purchase and prepare turkey around the holidays, so the following information has been developed as a guide for purchasing and preparing turkey.


Selecting a turkey


The first decision you need to make is whether you will purchase a fresh or frozen turkey. A fresh turkey is more convenient because it can be purchased and prepared at the last minute. However, fresh turkeys often must be ordered in advance to assure their availability.


Because fresh turkeys require special handling, they can be more expensive. The advantage of the frozen bird is that it can be bought in advance. This allows you to take advantage of special prices.


After you’ve decided on a fresh or frozen turkey, you’ll need to decide what size to purchase. If you want to have leftovers, purchase 1 pound of turkey per person. If you don’t want leftovers or if you’re cooking a turkey breast, plan on 3/4 pound per person. For a boneless turkey breast, you’ll need 1/2 pound of turkey per person. In addition to pounds, the size of a turkey can also be classified by the terms “hen” or “tom.” Tom turkeys are the larger turkeys and hens are the smaller ones.


Also, you may see the terms “basted” or “self-basting” on the package. This means the turkey has been injected with products such as butter, other types of fat, broth, spices or flavor enhancers to add flavor and a golden brown color to the skin. Each manufacturer may use different ingredients, so be sure to read the label to determine which ingredients were used.


Storing and thawing turkey


A fresh turkey should be purchased no more than three days prior to preparation and should be refrigerated at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Frozen turkey should be kept in a freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below until it’s time to thaw the turkey.


The safest way to defrost a turkey is in the refrigerator. Allow one day of thawing for every 5 pounds of turkey. That means you need to start defrosting the average bird four to five days before Thanksgiving.


To thaw the turkey faster, use a cold water bath. Completely submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water, and change the water every thirty minutes. This method requires about thirty minutes of thawing for every pound of turkey. It will take approximately four hours to thaw an eight pound turkey in a cold water bath.


Never defrost a turkey on the countertop at room temperature. When you leave a whole frozen turkey out at room temperature, the outside will reach 40 degrees while the inside is still frozen. At that temperature, harmful bacteria can grow.


Cooking stuffing


The safest method for cooking the stuffing is in a casserole dish. However, if you choose to stuff your turkey, you must take the proper precautions. Prepare the stuffing right before placing the turkey in the oven, and stuff the turkey loosely. If too much stuffing is put inside the turkey, it may not reach the proper cooking temperature which increases the potential for foodborne illness. You should use a meat thermometer to assure the stuffing reaches 165 degrees.


Cooking turkey


There are many ways you can cook your turkey: roasting, smoking, frying and even microwaving. No matter which method you are going to use, the first step is to remove the package from the outside of the turkey and then remove the neck and giblets from the inside of the turkey cavities. Giblets are the liver and heart of the turkey and are cooked separately and used for flavoring the stuffing or gravy.


Roasting the turkey is the most common method of preparation. You’ll end up with a golden brown, juicy turkey and your house will smell wonderful during the process. To roast a turkey, place it breast-side up, on a rack in a shallow pan. Using a rack lets the drippings fall below the turkey and will help to evenly distribute the heat around the bird. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast or thigh (make sure the thermometer is not touching bone), and roast the turkey until the thermometer reaches a minimum of 165 degrees.


Place the turkey in the oven after it has been preheated to 325 degrees (see chart below for approximate roasting times). There’s no need to baste while the turkey is cooking because the liquid only penetrates about an eighth to a quarter of an inch, so it only makes a difference in the very top layer. If the turkey starts to get too brown during the cooking process, make an aluminum foil tent over the bird to prevent further browning.


Once the turkey has reached the proper temperature, remove it from the oven and let it sit for 20 minutes. This allows for the even redistribution of the juices so they spread back through the turkey, and the whole turkey will be moist.


Approximate times for roasting are:


Size of Turkey Unstuffed Stuffed
8-12 lbs 2 – 3 hrs 3 – 3 hrs
12-14 lbs 3 – 3 hrs 3 – 4 hrs
14-18 lbs 3 – 4 hrs 4 – 4 hrs
18-20 lbs 4 – 4 hrs 4 – 4 hrs
20-24 lbs 4 – 5 hrs 4 – 5 hrs


As mentioned above, turkeys can also be smoked or fried. A benefit of smoking or frying a turkey is that the oven is left available to cook other dishes. Both frying and smoking result in a tasty turkey, but you must take care to assure a safe product.


To smoke a turkey safely, you need two thermometers – one for the meat and one for the smoker – as well as a smoker and hardwood chips. For food safety reasons, the turkey needs to be thawed completely and not stuffed (see above for instructions on how to safely thaw a turkey).


Soak the hardwood chips in water for one or two hours. While they are soaking, prepare the turkey by brushing the skin with cooking oil and insert a meat thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh without touching a bone. Plug in the electric smoker or light the charcoal smoker about 30 minutes before you are ready to start cooking. The grill temperature at the grate should be 200 to 250 degrees. If you are using a charcoal smoker, add briquettes every hour to hour and a half to help maintain proper temperatures. Place the foil-lined water pan in the smoker and fill the pan with water. Place the turkey on the grill and adjust the vents according to manufacturer’s instructions.


The turkey should cook to a temperature of 180 degrees. It can take up to 12 hours, depending on the weather and your equipment. Remember, every time you lift the lid you add 10 minutes to the cooking time. If the thermometer does not reach 140 degrees in four hours, finish cooking the turkey in the oven to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria (foods left under 140 degrees for over four hours can become unsafe to eat).


Fried turkey cooks a lot faster but requires special care and handling. As with smoked turkey, start out with a completely thawed, unstuffed bird (see above for instructions). The container you fry in must be large enough to hold the turkey with room for oil to cover it. To determine how much oil is needed, place the turkey in the kettle and cover with water 1 to 2 inches above the turkey. Remove the turkey and measure the distance from the top of the pot to the water line. The oil should be filled to the same level.


Heat the oil to 350 degrees. Allow 45 minutes to one hour for the oil to heat. Use a candy thermometer to determine the temperature of the oil. Peanut oil is a good choice for frying because it does well at high temperatures.


When the oil reaches 350 degrees, carefully lower the turkey into the cooking pot. It takes 3 to 5 minutes per pound for the turkey to cook. The skin will be black and the wings will be burnt. When the turkey begins to float, it is considered done. To make sure it has reached the appropriate temperature, remove the turkey from the oil and insert a thermometer into the thigh. If the thermometer does not reach 180 degrees, return the turkey to the oil for additional cooking. Once the turkey is finished cooking, slice and serve it. Your Thanksgiving guests will enjoy this traditional bird prepared in a nontraditional way.


WARNING! Deep frying turkey can be dangerous.
The following information is adapted from the National Fire Protection Association website. Please remember that your safety and the safety of your family is the most important thing to think about during the holidays.


Deep frying turkey can be dangerous because:

  • Many units can easily tip over, spilling the 5 gallons of hot oil within the cooking pot.
  • If the cooking pot is overfilled with oil, the oil may spill out of the unit when the turkey is placed into the cooking pot. Oil may hit the burner/flames causing a fire to engulf the entire unit.
  • Partially frozen turkeys placed into the fryer can cause a spillover effect. This too may result in an extensive fire.
  • With no thermostat controls, the units also have the potential to overheat the oil to the point of combustion.
  • The sides of the cooking pot, lid and pot handles get dangerously hot, posing severe burn hazards.


If you use a turkey fryer, here are some tips for safer use:

  • Turkey fryers should always be used outdoors, a safe distance from buildings and any other material that can burn.
  • Never use turkey fryers on wooden decks or in garages.
  • Make sure the fryers are used on a flat surface to reduce accidental tipping.
  • Never leave the fryer unattended. Most units do not have thermostat controls. If you don’t watch the fryer carefully, the oil will continue to heat until it catches fire.
  • NEVER let children or pets near the fryer when in use. Even after use, never allow children or pets near the turkey fryer. The oil inside the cooking pot can remain dangerously hot for hours after use.
  • To avoid oil spillover, do not overfill the fryer.
  • Use well-insulated potholders or oven mitts when touching pot or lid handles.
  • If possible, wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from oil splatter.
  • Make sure the turkey is completely thawed, and be careful with marinades. Oil and water don’t mix, and water causes oil to spill over which could lead to a fire or even an explosion hazard.
    • The National Turkey Federation recommends refrigerator thawing, and to allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of bird thawed in the refrigerator.
  • Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher nearby. Never use water to extinguish a grease fire. Remember to use your best judgment when attempting to fight a fire. If the fire is manageable, use an all-purpose fire extinguisher. If the fire increases, immediately call 911 for help.



How to Cook Turkey, Clemson Cooperative Extension
Smoking Meat and Poultry, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
Let's Talk Turkey - A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey, USDA FSIS
National Fire Protection Association


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Last update: Monday, November 14, 2016