Cook Your Turkey Like a P.R.O.

Cook Your Turkey Like a P.R.O.

Kristina Beaugh


By Kristina Beaugh, MPH

Food Safety Education Staff, Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

The countdown is over and the big day is finally here.  It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the family is on the way, most likely with growling tummies.  Hopefully, you’ve been preparing all month, but if not, no worries!  We’ve got you covered on how to safely handle and prepare your turkey.  Now that you’re ready, let’s get cooking!

Practice Hand Hygiene

One of the most important ingredients for a delicious and food safe Thanksgiving meal is clean and sanitized hands.  Be sure to either wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds or sanitize them with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer throughout the cooking process, especially before and after preparing the meal. Also, make sure to wash your hands after handling raw meat and poultry.  This is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of bacteria.  Oftentimes, there tends to be multiple cooks in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day.  Make sure all of your helpers practice good hand hygiene before they touch any food. Everyone should either wash or sanitize their hands prior to sitting down to enjoy the Thanksgiving feast.

Cross-Contamination: The Unwanted Guest

The transfer of bacteria from one surface to another is known as cross-contamination.  For example, if you touch the raw turkey and then go on to prepare a fresh salad without washing your hands with soap and water, the bacteria from the turkey could be present on the salad and could make your family sick.  Always separate raw turkey from ready-to-eat foods.  By using separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils when preparing and serving food you can also help you to avoid cross-contamination. 

Another source of bacteria in your kitchen can be your dish towel.  A recent study identified kitchen towels as the number one source of cross-contamination in the kitchen.  They can build up bacteria after multiple uses and should be washed frequently in the hot cycle of your washing machine.  If you want to avoid using up all of your nice kitchen towels on Thanksgiving, opt for using paper towels, but remember to only use them one time so that any bacteria they come in contact with ends up in the trash, and not elsewhere.

Cooking Turkey like a PRO

Whether this is your first time or you’ve been doing it for years, cooking the Thanksgiving turkey can be tricky.  Trying to figure out when the turkey is done is often the hardest task, but it doesn’t have to be.  You can impress your family by using a food thermometer to cook like a PRO: Place the thermometer, Read the temperature, Out of the oven!

Place the thermometer in three different spots to determine the temperature of the turkey:

  • The innermost part of the thigh;
  • The innermost part of the wing; and,
  • The thickest part of the breast.

Read the temperature to make sure that the bird has reached a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, the temperature that kills harmful pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobachter.

Take the turkey Out of the oven when it has reached a safe temperature and serve it to your family without worryWhat about Leftovers?

You may want to immediately relax after such an awesome meal but it’s important to remember to refrigerate any leftovers within two hours.  Prompt storage can prevent the growth of bacteria that can make you sick, and these bacteria can’t be smelled or tasted. 

Store your leftovers in shallow containers and cut turkey into smaller pieces to decrease cooling time.  While you may have cooked the stuffing inside of your turkey, it should be stored separately from the turkey in a shallow container. 

There are two storage options for your leftovers:

  • In the Fridge:  Leftovers are safe for 3 to 4 days (that’s Monday!) and can be frozen during that time for longer storage.
  • In the Freezer:  Frozen foods are safe forever if the temperature is 0 °F or below.  For best quality, use leftovers within 2 to 6 months.

Need Help?  We’re Here!

If you have questions, visit Let’s Talk Turkey to learn how to safely plan, select, thaw, and prepare a turkey or check out these turkey resources at FoodSafety.gov.  

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