How To Safely Prepare and Cook a Turkey and Fixings

Turkey with Thermometer
Turkey with Thermometer. Kim Kozlowski/LLC Moment Open/Getty Images

One of the most important tools when it comes to cooking a turkey safely is a food thermometer. A reliable food thermometer ensures that an internal temperature sufficient to destroy harmful bacteria has been reached. Even if your turkey comes with a pop-up timer, a food thermometer will give you the most accurate reading.

Safe Roasting of Whole Turkey

If the turkey is frozen, thaw it in its leak-proof packaging using the refrigerator, cold water method, or microwave oven.

The oven temperature should never be below 325 F (165 C/Gas 3).

Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan or large baking pan that is at least 2 inches in depth. Or fashion a "rack" with foil strips or rest the turkey on carrot and celery sticks to keep it out of its drippings. Tuck the wing tips back under the back of the turkey and secure the legs together with kitchen twine or silicone ties.

Add some water to the pan, about 1/2 cup.

An aluminum foil tent will help prevent over-browning. Either tent the bird during the first hour or place the tent on the turkey after it has browned, nearer the end of cooking time.

Keep an eye on the food thermometer. The turkey must reach at least 165 F (73.9 C).  Check both the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh. (The recommended breast temperature is 165 F (73.9 C), and the recommended thigh temperature is 180 F (82.2 C).)  If there is stuffing, check the center of the stuffing.

It must register at least 165 F (73.9 C). See below for more on stuffing safety.

After you remove the turkey from the oven, let it stand for 15 minutes before carving.

Things That Can Impact Roasting Times

  • The oven thermostat may not be accurate.
  • A faulty meat thermometer. To check your meat thermometer for accuracy, fill a glass with ice. Add cold water. Let it stand for a few minutes, and then insert the tip of the thermometer into the ice water. It should register around 32 F (0 C) or just slightly above. Turn the screw on the back of the thermometer to calibrate if necessary.
  • If the turkey isn't fully thawed, it will take longer to cook.
  • If the turkey is stuffed, it will take longer to cook.
  • If the turkey is tented with foil throughout the roasting time, it could lengthen the cooking time.
  • A dark roasting pan will cook faster than a light-colored or shiny pan.
  • If the pan is very large, it could hinder heat circulation.

Stuffing Preparation and Safety Tips

Stuffing or dressing can be cooked in a baking pan or in the bird. Here are some tips for stuffing the turkey and cooking it safely.

Any meat or seafood must be fully cooked before it is mixed into the stuffing mixture.

Stuff the bird with the mixture as soon as it is prepared; don't cool it first. Stuff loosely, allowing about 3/4 cup per pound of poultry. A 12-pound turkey will accommodate about 9 cups of stuffing. 

Put the turkey in the oven as soon as it is stuffed. 

The center of the stuffing in a turkey must reach the minimum safe temperature of 165 F (73.9 C). Even if the turkey is done, it must stay in the oven until the stuffing is thoroughly cooked. 

Let the cooked stuffed turkey rest for 20 minutes before you remove the stuffing and carve the bird.

What Not to Do

  • Don't rinse the turkey. Water can splash from the turkey and spread bacteria, contaminating nearby surfaces.
  • Don't use the turkey cutting board and utensils for other food items. Always use a separate cutting board and utensils and wash hands thoroughly after handling the turkey.
  • Don't thaw a turkey at room temperature. Plan in advance. A 12-pound frozen turkey will take about 3 days to thaw in the refrigerator or about 6 hours using the cold water method.  
  • Don't stuff the turkey in advance. 
  • Don't prepare the stuffing mixture in advance. If the stuffing is prepared in advance, cook it and store it in shallow containers. Don't stuff a turkey with cooked stuffing.
  • Don't stuff a turkey that will be fried, grilled, smoked, or cooked in a microwave oven.
  • If you don't have a thermometer to ensure the stuffing is done, don't stuff the turkey. Cook the stuffing in a baking pan outside the bird.

Safe Handling of Hot Food and the Leftovers

Holding Hot Food

The danger zone for food is between the temperatures of 40 F (4.4 C) and 140 F (60 C). If food is left in the danger zone for too long, harmful bacteria can grow to levels that could cause illness. 

If dishes are done, but you won't be eating right away, keep them above 140 F (60 C). Cover the dishes with foil and keep them in an oven (or warming drawer) that is set between 150 F (65.5 C ) and 200 F (93.3 C). A slow cooker can also be used to keep food warm; set it on LOW or Warm. If food is kept warm for more than 2 hours, it can become dry 

If your dishes are done, but you won't be eating until much later, refrigerate the dishes and reheat. A refrigerator must register 40 F (4.4 C) or slightly below. It's a good idea to have a refrigerator thermometer to make sure your food is never in the "danger zone."

  • If the turkey is stuffed, remove the stuffing from the turkey cavity to a shallow container. Cover and refrigerate immediately.
  • Cut the turkey from the bones, slice as desired, put in containers, cover, and refrigerate. 
  • Cooked potatoes, vegetable side dishes, and gravy should also be transferred to covered containers and refrigerated.
  • Reheat everything to at least 165 F (73.9 C). The food should be hot and steaming.

The Leftovers

Within 2 hours of cooking the food or after it is removed from the oven, warming drawer, slow cooker, or other appliance, leftovers must be refrigerated. Put the leftovers in shallow layers or in shallow containers so they will cool quickly and then cover and put them in the refrigerator. If the room temperature is above 90 F, put food away within 1 hour.

If guests plan to take leftovers home, remind them the food must be refrigerated within 2 hours. If possible, send leftovers fully chilled and on ice.

Reheat leftovers to at least 165 F (73.9 C).

Storage Times

Refrigerator  (40 F (4.4 C) or slightly below)

  • Cooked turkey - 3 to 4 days
  • Stuffing and gravy - 1 to 2 days
  • Cooked side dishes - 3 to 4 days

Freezer (0 F (-17.8 C) or below)

  • Turkey slices or pieces - 4 months
  • Turkey covered with broth or gravy - 6 months
  • Cooked turkey or poultry dishes - 4 to 6 months
  • Stuffing and gravy - 1 month