Food for Thought: Let’s talk turkey

By Nancy Schuster
Frontier Extension District Agent

While no records exist of the exact first Thanksgiving feast, journals of the time note that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the three-day event. Wild – but not domestic – turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans. But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.

Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving’s participants got their fill of meat. Journals share that the Wampanoag Indians arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire and that the colonists might have used some of the venison to whip up a hearty stew.

foodforthoughtTurkey does not have to be the choice of meat for Thanksgiving, but for many Americans Thanksgiving meals includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. If turkey is your choice of meat, and you bought a large frozen turkey, read on I have some advice for you!

The first rule of turkey cooking is to allow five to six days in a refrigerator to thaw a large turkey weighing 20 to 24 pounds. If your frozen turkey weights from 16 pounds to 20 pounds, allow four to five days for thawing. It will take a turkey weighing 12 to 16 pounds from three to four days of thawing in a refrigerator. A small turkey weighing 4 to 12 pounds will take from one to three days to thaw. A general rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours of thawing time in a refrigerator for every four to five pounds of turkey.

Rule number 2 is do not rinse the raw turkey! Roughly half of all meat in the U.S. is contaminated with some sort of bacteria. That might sound gross but proper food safety can prevent foodborne illness from sitting at your Thanksgiving table.

So don’t listen to your grandmother when she says to rinse! There is science behind this recommendation. Rinsing your poultry – any bird, not just turkey – can actually cause bacteria to aerosolize and spread around your kitchen up to three feet! Within three feet of a kitchen sink can be a spice rack, some cooking utensils, a coffee pot and possibly baby’s bottles sitting on a drying rack. What is within three feet of your sink? Rinsing poultry does nothing to get rid of most bacteria – the bacteria that it does eliminate are now splashing around your kitchen. Proper cooking eliminates bacteria. And, from a cook’s perspective, a dry skin on poultry makes a nice and crispy skin.

Rule 3 is to set your oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees F.  Lower than 325 degrees and you are just growing bacteria! Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow pan, add a half cup of water to pan and cook. The following chart shows roasting times for an unstuffed turkey.

Unstuffed turkey size Roasting time
4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours

A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook turkey to higher temperatures. Turkeys with a “pop-up” temperature indicator still need a food thermometer check to be sure the turkey is properly cooked.

Rule 4 is to handle the leftovers properly. Chatting with family members after Thanksgiving dinner needs to be postponed until the leftovers are in containers covered with lids in the refrigerator.

Perishable food like turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, gravy, and dressing should not be at room temperature for more than two hours. Make sure the thicker foods are not more than two inches in height so they will cool down quickly. A large container of hot mashed potatoes thickly packed will take more than two hours to cool down.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline fields 80,000 calls a year from citizens worried about the safety of their meat, poultry and eggs. Not surprisingly, November is the hotline’s busiest month. If you have additional questions about cooking a turkey, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-MPHotline or 888-674-6854 (free call) or chat live with a food safety specialist at available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, English or Spanish.

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline will be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time. You can also ask questions of “Karen,” FSIS’s virtual representative, 24/7 at

schustersmNancy Schuster is a Frontier Extension District family and consumer science agent whose responsibilities include providing information about food safety, nutrition, food science and food preparation. She is based in the Garnett office of the Frontier Extension District and can be reached at 785-448-6826 or email [email protected].

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