Don’t let food-borne illness ruin your holiday turkey feast

The holidays are just around the corner! But beware: bacteria never take a holiday. It’s important to keep in mind some simple messages about thawing, cooking and chilling holiday feasts.

With several popular holidays approaching, Michigan State University Extension educators remind consumers that it’s important to follow some simple food-safety practices to thaw, cook and store turkey properly.

“Turkey is a delicious source of lean protein, but it must be handled and cooked properly to prevent potentially dangerous germs such as Salmonellaand Campylobacter from causing illness,” said Lucia Patritto, MSU Extension educator. “Fortunately, following a few simple tips will help keep you and your family safe this holiday season.”

Thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator – never on the countertop or in the sink – in accordance with the following approximations:

Thawing a frozen turkey

Pounds of turkey

Days needed to thaw

8 to 12 pounds

1 to 2 days

12 to 16 pounds

2 to 3 days

16 to 20 pounds

3 to 4 days

20 to 24 pounds

4 to 5 days

“A large turkey will need to be moved from the freezer or taken from the grocery store to the refrigerator for thawing on the weekend before Thanksgiving or the Thursday or Friday before Christmas,” Patritto said.

The refrigerator method is the preferred method for thawing a turkey, but turkey can also be thawed in cold water. The water must be changed every 30 minutes.

Michigan State University Extension
recommends using a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey. This ensures that it reaches a temperature sufficient to kill bacteria without overcooking the bird.

For optimum safety, stuffing a turkey is not recommended. A more even temperature is achieved when the stuffing is cooked separately in an oven-safe dish.

“If you do choose to stuff your turkey, the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time,” Patritto explained. “However, keep wet and dry ingredients separate. Chill all of the wet ingredients (butter or margarine, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.). Mix wet and dry ingredients just before loosely filling the turkey cavities, and then cook the turkey immediately.”

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh, wing and the thickest part of the breast. Consumers may choose to cook the turkey to higher temperatures if they prefer.

A food thermometer should always be used to check the center of the stuffing, whether it’s in the turkey or in a baking dish. The safe minimum internal temperature is also 165 degrees F.

Here are approximate cooking times:

Cooking an unstuffed turkey

Size of turkey

Cooking time

8 to 12 pounds

2.75 to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds

3 to 3.75 hours

14 to 18 pounds

3.75 to 4.25 hours

18 to 20 pounds

4.25 to 4.5 hours

20 to 24 pounds

4.5 to 5 hours


Cooking a stuffed turkey

Size of turkey

Cooking time

8 to 12 pounds

3 to 3.5 hours

12 to 14 pounds

3.5 to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds

4 to 4.25 hours

18 to 20 pounds

4.25 to 4.75 hours

20 to 24 pounds

4.75 to 5.25 hours

Handling leftovers

To store leftovers, cut the turkey into pieces, place the pieces in a shallow container and refrigerate; stuffing should be stored separately, also in shallow containers. Be sure to refrigerate all leftovers within one hour of cooking. Use the leftover turkey and stuffing within three to four days and gravy within two to three days; these foods can also be frozen. Reheat thoroughly to 165 degrees F or until hot and steaming.

For more information about food safety, in English and Spanish, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. CDT Monday through Friday at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

You can also email the hotline at or use the FSIS Web-based automated response system “Ask Karen," available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at

For more information about food preservation, nutrition, safe food preparation and other issues of interest to Michigan families, contact an MSU Extension educator in your area either by visiting the MSU Extension website or by calling toll-free 888-MSUE-4-MI (888-678-3464).

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