Thawing, preparing and stuffing the turkey

Deon S. Legette, County Extension Agent

November 19, 2013

Thawing a Turkey

Three ways are safe — in the refrigerator, in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes, or in a microwave oven. Do not thaw a turkey at room temperature. Make sure the turkey is completely thawed before cooking.

Thawing a Turkey in the Refrigerator: This method takes the longest time but is the easiest and safest way. Put the frozen turkey (still in its original packaging) on a deep tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. This will prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods. This method requires planning ahead as it will take about 24 hours for every four to five pounds. A 20-pound turkey will take between four and five days to completely thaw. It is safe to keep the thawed bird in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking it.

Thawing in Cold Water: This method requires the most time and attention as well as a deep kitchen sink. Put the frozen turkey (still in its original packaging) in the clean sink. Cover the turkey completely with cold water. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw the turkey. A 20-pound bird will take ten hours to thaw. The water must also be changed every 30 minutes to be sure it is cold. If the packaging is torn, put the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag, close completely and then place in water. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

Thawing in the Microwave: To thaw in the microwave, check your owner’s manual to be sure that your turkey is not too big for the size of your microwave oven. Also, check the minutes per pound and the power level to use for thawing as well as cooking. Turkeys thawed in a microwave must be cooked immediately after thawing.

Table 1. Thawing Times for a Turkey

Turkey Size (lbs.) Refrigerator (Days) Cold Water (Hours)

8-12 2-3 4-6

12-16 3-4 6-8

16-20 4-5 8-10

20-24 5-6 10-12


After thawing, prepare the turkey for cooking.

1. Remove the original packaging from the thawed or fresh turkey.

2. Remove the giblet packet from the body or neck cavity.

3. If you are stuffing the turkey, stuff immediately before cooking.

4. Return the legs to a tucked position, if untucked.

5. Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh, without touching bone. If you are using an instant-read thermometer instead of a meat thermometer, do not keep the thermometer in the bird while it is cooking.

6. Brush the skin with oil to prevent drying.

Wash hands, utensils, sink and everything that has been in contact with the raw turkey. After washing, sanitize the counter, sinks and any containers or trays that have been used. To sanitize, prepare a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of warm, not hot, water. Immerse the washed items in this solution, remove, and let air dry. If you cannot immerse the item, such as the countertop, saturate the surface with the sanitizing solution and let air-dry.

Note: It is best not to rinse the turkey before cooking because the rinse water would contaminate the sink and, if water is splashed, the counter and other surfaces around the sink. Cooking the turkey to a safe temperature — 165 F or hotter — kills bacteria on the surface of the turkey.

Stuffing a Turkey

Cooking a home-stuffed turkey can be riskier than cooking one that is not stuffed. If the stuffing is not thoroughly cooked, foodborne illness could occur. To stuff and cook a turkey safely, follow these steps:

Prepare Stuffing Safely: Moist and dry ingredients can be prepared separately ahead of time. Store moist ingredients (butter/margarine, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.) in the refrigerator. Both moist and dry ingredients should be combined immediately before the bird is stuffed, never in advance, even if refrigerated. Use only cooked ingredients, such as sautéed vegetables, cooked meats and seafood (oysters). If eggs are used, be sure that they are pasteurized liquid eggs and not raw shell eggs. Moist stuffing is better than dry stuffing as heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.

Stuff the Bird Properly: Loosely stuff both the neck and body cavities. Use about three-quarters cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. For example, no more than 15 cups of stuffing should be used in a 20-pound bird.

Cook at the Proper Temperature: Put the stuffed turkey immediately in a preheated oven set no lower than 325°F. Cooking overnight at a low setting (200 to 250 °F) is unsafe. Bacteria can easily grow under these conditions.

Use a Food Thermometer: Always check the stuffing temperature to make sure it is done. Even if the turkey has reached 165 °F in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing might not have reached 165 °F in the center. It is very important that all parts of the stuffing are cooked to 165 °F for safety.

Pre-stuffed Poultry: Pre-stuffed whole poultry is highly perishable and should only be purchased if it has a USDA or state mark of inspection on the package. This means the turkey has been processed under controlled conditions. Never thaw a pre-stuffed frozen bird before cooking. Always cook from the frozen state. Follow the package directions to ensure a safely cooked product.

If you have questions about food safety/nutrition, call Deon S. Legette, Food Safety/Nutrition Agent at 803-635-4722 or visit the Clemson University Home & Garden Information Center website at http://hgic.clemson.edu.