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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Holidays


Turkey with stuffing on a platterCook turkey and stuffing safely

Janet Hackert, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Turkey is always a healthy choice and with the holidays fast approaching, more people will be cooking and eating it. Cooking it properly will ensure that it is tasty and safe to eat.

Start by thawing the bird safely. There are three recommended methods.


  • First, and safest, is to thaw meat in the refrigerator. This way there is never an opportunity for any food-borne pathogens to grow, as they do so well at room temperature. Expect about 24 hours per 5 pounds of meat when thawing in the refrigerator.
  • If time gets short, it is also safe to thaw in cold water. Change the water for colder water every half hour to keep the outer edges of the turkey from reaching those dangerous warmer temperatures where microorganisms thrive. Expect about 30 minutes per pound of turkey when using the cold-water method. Also be sure to clean and sanitize the area after the thawing process is complete.
  • Turkey and other meats can be thawed safely in the microwave, but because the outer layers are very warm and the perfect growing environment for microorganisms, the meat should then immediately be cooked.


Cooking a large piece of meat like a turkey can take a long time. Cook at 325 F until the meat, at its thickest part, is 165 F. The following will help to estimate how long to plan for:


  • 8-12 pounds of turkey takes 2¾ - 3 hours to cook
  • 12-14 pounds takes 3 - 3¾ hours
  • 14-18 pounds takes 3¾ - 4¼ hours
  • 18-20 pounds takes 4¼ - 4½ hours
  • 20-24 pounds takes 4½ - 5 hours to cook


When the turkey is done, remove from the oven and let it stand 20 minutes before carving.

Many people like to add stuffing or dressing to their holiday meal. For more even cooking, it is recommended that you cook your stuffing outside the bird in a casserole dish. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing and make sure it reaches 165 F.

If you choose to stuff your turkey, the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time; however, keep wet and dry ingredients separate. Chill all of the wet ingredients (butter/margarine, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.). Mix wet and dry ingredients just before filling the turkey cavities. Fill the cavities loosely and cook the turkey immediately. Use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165 F.

If you find yourself with a food safety concern about the turkey during odd hours or if you want additional tips on preparing stuffing, cooking a turkey and cooking other common meats, help is available on the Food Safety and Inspection Service website at or You can also use the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) for recorded answers to frequently asked questions.


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Last update: Monday, November 23, 2015