Thawing and Cooking a Turkey Safely

Whether you thrill at the idea of preparing a lavish spread, or dread slaving away to create a traditional holiday meal, the last thing you want is to make your family and yourself sick with food poisoning. Thawing and cooking a turkey does not have to be difficult, but there are some safety basics that should not be overlooked. Planning ahead is ideal, but you can still pull it off safely if you decide to cook a turkey at the last minute.

Thawing Your Turkey

Thawing your turkey is the most time consuming part of cooking a turkey. There are two safe methods. The safest is to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, but it is also very slow. You can thaw your turkey much faster in cold water. The turkey should be in a water-proof bag and completely submerged in cold tap water. The water should be changed every 30 minutes. This keeps the outer part of the turkey from getting warm enough to grow bacteria.

How long will it take?

  • Refrigerator method – 6 hours per pound
  • Cold water method 30 minutes per pound

So, a twelve pound turkey will take about three days in the fridge or about six hours in water, and a 20 pound turkey will take five days in the fridge and about 10 hours in cold water.

Do Not Rinse Your Turkey

Many recipes call for rinsing the turkey and patting it dry before cooking or preparing. You should never rinse poultry before cooking. It does not remove a substantial amount of bacteria from the bird, but it does spread the bacteria all over your kitchen. We’re not just talking about the obvious splashing here. It makes the bacteria go airborne, gently coating everything within several feet. This is one rule that will make your life much easier. Rinsing a turkey is a cumbersome task.

Keeping It Clean

Cross contamination is your biggest enemy. This is where planning ahead can come in handy. Keep everything separate for raw meat. That means cutting boards, utensils, and any dishtowels and other items you use to clean up after the turkey. Plan to use a separate set of everything for the raw turkey than you do for vegetables, and for the turkey after it is cooked, unless you have the time and energy to thoroughly clean everything between tasks.

Wash your hands frequently. You cannot do this too often when handling raw meat.

The Stuffing Controversy

Cooking a stuffed turkey can be done safely, but it is tricky. The stuffing and the turkey must both reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, and that can be difficult to achieve without overcooking and drying out the meat. It is recommended to cook the stuffing separately. To prevent overcooking the meat, if you choose to cook the stuffing in the bird, you can remove the stuffing rom the turkey when the meat has reached temperature, and continue cooking the stuffing while the turkey rests.


Get yourself a good meat thermometer. Do not rely on the pop-up thing you see in so many turkeys. The meat needs to reach 165 degrees, and should be measured in the meaty part of the thigh up tight to the body, but not touching bone with the thermometer. Cooking times will vary according to the cooking temperature, which is really a matter of personal taste. Some recipes call for slow cooking at 325 degrees, while others recommend cooking your turkey at 500 degrees for about eight minutes per pound.