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It’s time to talk turkey

Thanksgiving will be here in two weeks and most of you will be roasting a turkey for the dinner table. Preparing a holiday bird can cause a major challenge in some households because we only prepare a turkey once or twice a year, and it is so much larger than anything else we put into the oven. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established food safety guidelines for preparing your holiday bird; so once again, I'm sharing those recommendations in advance. Hopefully, it will assist with making your Thanksgiving feast easy to prepare. Selecting a turkey for your table Turkeys come in all sizes to fit everyone’s holiday meal plan. They can be purchased whole or in parts, suitable for small families or those who have a preference for white or dark meat. They come fresh, frozen, self-basting or pre-stuffed. Most people over buy on the size of their turkey, you only need to figure one pound of turkey per person. So, if you are serving 12 people, buy a 12 lb. bird, not a 20 pounder! This will give you enough for a meal and leftovers for the next day. Thawing Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the safest method. Plan to purchase your turkey far enough in advance to thaw in the refrigerator.

The only exception to thawing ahead of time would be a frozen, pre-stuffed turkey; these are a specialty item we don’t often see. They would come with specific instructions

Whole turkey
8 to 12 pounds 1 to 2 days
16 to 20 pounds 3 to 4 days
12 to 16 pounds 2 to 3 days
20 to 24 pounds 4 to 5 days

Pieces of large turkey
half, quarter, half breast 1 to 2 days

If it’s the day before and you forgot to thaw the bird, don’t panic. Turkey can be safely thawed in cold water, providing you change the water frequently. Keep the bird in its original wrap and make sure there are no tears, and place in the sink or a large pan and cover with water. Change the water every 30 minutes.

Thawing time in cold water

8 to 12 pounds 4 to 6 hours
16 to 20 pounds 9 to 11 hours
12 to 16 pounds 6 to 9 hours
20 to 24 pounds 11 to 12 hours

Set the oven no lower than 325° F. Pre-heating is not necessary.
Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Times are based on fresh or completely thawed birds at a refrigerator temperature of 40° F or below.
Most turkeys come with roasting instruction that can be easily followed. USDA recommends placing the turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan two to 2 ½ inches deep. Add ½ cup of water to the bottom of the pan. Loosely tent the bird with aluminum foil for the first one to 1 ½ hours, then remove the tent to achieve a golden brown skin. Some cooks prefer to first roast the turkey to a golden brown, then tent with foil and that is acceptable too.
If a meat thermometer is not available, it is best to cook the stuffing in a casserole dish. If you prefer to stuff the turkey, mix ingredients just before oven cooking, stuff it loosely to allow for expansion as it cooks. Additional time is required for the turkey and stuffing to reach a safe internal temperature.

Cooking times

4 to 6 lbs. Breast 1 ½ to 2 1/4 hours
14 to 18 lbs. 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
8 to 12 lbs. 2 3/4 to 3 hours
18 to 20 lbs. 4 1/4 to 4 ½ hours
12 to 14 lbs. 3 to 3 3/4 hours
20 to 24 lbs. 4 ½ to 5 hours

8 to 12 lbs. 3 to 3 ½ hours
18 to 20 lbs. 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
12 to 14 lbs. 3 ½ to 4 hours
20 to 24 lbs. 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
14 to 18 lbs. 4 to 4 1/4 hours

For safety and doneness, the internal temperature should be checked with a meat thermometer. The temperature must reach 165°F in the thigh or breast of a whole turkey before removing it from the oven. Resting time will take the temperature up to 180°.
In the absence of a meat thermometer, pierce an unstuffed turkey with a fork in several places; juices should be clear with no trace of pink.
Let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving. For answers to your questions on preparing a turkey safely, you can contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854. Their hours will be from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you prefer e-mail, contact them at or You can even reach the service through a mobile contact at Of course, you may also call the Madison County Extension office. Enjoy your Thanksgiving celebration.

The University of Florida Extension/IFAS – Madison County is an Equal Employment Opportunity Institution.

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