USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline Turkey Tips

Image courtesy Pixabay

Thanksgiving is just days away – and you’re getting ready to cook the obligatory turkey.

How big a turkey? Allow 1 pound of turkey per person. If not everyone likes light meat or dark meat – you can buy pieces rather than or in addition to – a whole bird.

If you’re buying a fresh turkey, the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline advises a fresh turkey can be bought one to 2 days before you plan to cook it. Also look at the best-by or use-by date on the manufacturer’s label – but do NOT follow the ‘sell by’ date.

If you have a frozen turkey – it will take some time to defrost. It takes about 24 hours for every four to five pounds of whole turkey to thaw in the refrigerator – and it’s ok to remain thawed in the fridge for a day or two before cooking.


In the fridge – in its original wrapper.

  • 4 to 12 pounds – 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds – 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds – 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds – 5 to 6 days

If necessary, a turkey that has been properly thawed in the refrigerator may be refrozen.

In cold water – allow about 30 minutes per pound. Wrap your turkey securely, making sure the water is not able to leak through the wrapping. Submerge your wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes.

  • 4 to 12 pounds – 2 to 6 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds – 6 to 8 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds – 8 to 10 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds – 10 to 12 hours

Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed. Do not refreeze.

In a microwave oven

  • Check your owner’s manual for the size turkey that will fit in your microwave oven, the minutes per pound, and power level to use for thawing.
  • Remove all outside wrapping.
  • Place on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak.
  • Cook your turkey immediately. Do not refreeze or refrigerate your turkey after thawing in the microwave oven.

And remember to remove the giblets from the turkey cavities after thawing – and cook them separately.


  • Set your oven temperature no lower than 325 °F.
    Place your turkey or turkey breast on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.
  • For optimum safety, stuffing a turkey is not recommended. For more even cooking, it is recommended you cook your stuffing outside the bird in a casserole. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing. The stuffing must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
  • If you choose to stuff your turkey, the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time; however, keep wet and dry ingredients separate. Chill all of the wet ingredients (butter/margarine, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.). Mix wet and dry ingredients just before filling the turkey cavities. Fill the cavities loosely. Cook the turkey immediately. Use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
  • A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook turkey to higher temperatures.
  • If your turkey has a “pop-up” temperature indicator, it is recommended that you also check the internal temperature of the turkey in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast with a food thermometer. The minimum internal temperature should reach 165 °F for safety.
  • For quality, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set. The turkey will carve more easily.
  • Remove all stuffing from the turkey cavities.

HOW LONG TO COOK – at 325°F oven temperature


  • 4 to 8 pounds (breast) – 1½ to 3¼ hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds – 2¾ to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds – 3 to 3¾ hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds – 3¾ to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds – 4¼ to 4½ hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds – 4½ to 5 hours


  • 4 to 6 pounds (breast) – Not usually applicable
  • 6 to 8 pounds (breast) – 2½ to 3½ hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds – 3 to 3½ hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds – 3½ to 4 hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds – 4 to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds – 4¼ to 4¾ hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds – 4¾ to 5¼ hours

It is safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state. The cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer than recommended for a fully thawed turkey. Remember to remove the giblet packages during the cooking time. Remove carefully with tongs or a fork.


  • Tuck wing tips under the shoulders of the bird for more even cooking. This is referred to as “akimbo.”
  • Add ½ cup of water to the bottom of the pan.
  • If your roasting pan does not have a lid, you may place a tent of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the turkey for the first 1 to 1 ½ hours. This allows for maximum heat circulation, keeps the turkey moist, and reduces oven splatter. To prevent over-browning, foil may also be placed over the turkey after it reaches the desired color.
  • If using an oven-proof food thermometer, place it in the turkey at the start of the cooking cycle. It will allow you to check the internal temperature of the turkey while it is cooking. For turkey breasts, place thermometer in the thickest part. For whole turkeys, place in the thickest part of the inner thigh. Once the thigh has reached 165 °F, check the wing and the thickest part of the breast to ensure the turkey has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F throughout the product.
  • If using an oven cooking bag, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on the package.

If you need more help – you can call the USDA Meat & Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline – or chat with an expert online at

Image courtesy Pixabay/Lilly Cantabile