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Preparation tips for your Thanksgiving bird

Dianne Douglas
The University of Florida Extension

Preparing a turkey can be intimidating to most cooks. It’s 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 rest of the year. I couldn’t let the season go by without a few recommendations to follow from the US Department of Agriculture. They will boost your confidence and keep your holiday turkey safe to serve.

Turkeys come in all sizes to fit everyone’s holiday meal.  They can be purchased whole as in the traditional manner, or in parts, suitable for small families.  They come fresh or frozen, self-basting or pre-stuffed.  In other words, you have lots of choices.

If you plan to purchase a frozen turkey, look for a solidly frozen bird. Many frozen turkeys are available pre-basted, and some are pre-stuffed. Be sure to carefully read labels so you get exactly what you want.

Don’t over buy! One of the most frequent calls to the office is about what size to buy? You can figure on 1 pound of turkey per person, taking into account the weight of the bones. So, don’t purchase a 25 pounder if you are serving 12 people. Believe it or not, a 12-13 pound bird will provide generous servings with enough left-overs for a second day meal.

Thawing a turkey is always a challenge, it takes time under refrigerator conditions. Leaving it on the kitchen counter top is never an option, you’ll be inviting food poisoning to the holiday table. Since the outside of the turkey is thawed long before the center during the time it takes the inside to thaw; bacteria are rapidly multiplying on the surface. You can’t rely on cooking to destroy all bacteria; some organisms produce toxins that withstand heat.

The safest way to thaw a turkey is to defrost it in the refrigerator. Simply place the turkey in its original wrap on a tray or in a pan to catch moisture that accumulates as it thaws. Thawing time is based on size, look at the suggested times below:

8 to 12 pounds1-2 days

16 to 20 pounds 3-4 days

12 to 16 pounds2-3 days

20 to 24 pounds 4-5 days

If you forget about defrosting your turkey until the day before, it can be defrosted in cold water. Check the wrapping to make sure there are no tears, and simply place the bird in its unopened bag in the sink and cover it with chilly water. If the wrapping is torn, place the turkey in another plastic bag, close securely, and then place in water. The catch here, is to change the water frequently so it stays cold, the National Turkey Federation recommends every 30 minutes. Your turkey will defrost according to size:

8 to 12 pounds4-6 hours

16 to 20 pounds 9-11 hours

12 to 16 pounds6-9 hours

20 to 24 pounds 11-12 hours

Never defrost a frozen pre-stuffed turkey. These birds go directly from the freezer to the oven and come with instructions on preparation.

If you must stuff your turkey, do so just before putting it in the oven. Ingredients can be chopped the day before, covered and stored in the refrigerator. Mix dry and perishable ingredients together when you are ready to put the turkey in the oven. The cavities of the bird should be lightly stuffed, because it expands as it cooks. Remove the stuffing immediately after the bird is taken out of the oven.

For optimum safety and ease, bake your stuffing in a separate casserole dish.  You save time in preparation, avoid raw juice dripping through your stuffing as it cooks and you cut cooking time.

Oven temperature should be set at 325°F, place the turkey on a shallow roasting pan and place in the center of the oven.

Cooking times:


4 to 6 lb. Breast --- 1 ½ to 2 1/4 hours

8 to 12 lbs. ------------ 2 3/4 to 3 hours

12 to 14 lbs --------- 3 to 3 3/4 hours

14 to 18 lbs ------ 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours

18 to 20 lbs. -------- 4 1/4 to 4 ½ hours

20 to 24 lbs. --------- 4 ½ to 5 hours

Dianne Douglas
The University of Florida Extension
Dianne Douglas
The University of Florida Extension

8 to 12 lbs. ------------- 3 to 3 ½ hours

12 to 14 lbs.  ----------- 3 ½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 lbs. ---------- 4 to 4 1/4 hours

18 to 20 lbs -------4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours

20 to 24 lbs. -----  4 3/4 to 5 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 of a whole turkey (center of the stuffing should reach 165° F) before removing it from the oven.

If you don’t have meat thermometer, do a visual check to be sure juices are clear. You will want to pierce an unstuffed turkey with a fork in several places; juices should be clear with no trace of pink.

For more information on safely preparing poultry, contact the Madison County Extension Service. USDA operates their Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) MPHotline, Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone hours on Thanksgiving Day are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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