Turkey Food Safety Basics

For most people, turkey is a important part of the holidays. With all that is going on with the holidays, cooking can also be a lot of pressure and you don’t want to make anyone sick. Follow these simple steps to avoid giving your family and friends the ‘gift’ of food illness.

Don’t Wash the Raw Turkey

According to a recent food-safety survey conducted by the FDA, 68% of the public washes a whole turkey before cooking it. However,  the USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking because it can spread bacteria up to 3 feet around the sink. Cooking meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria present, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.

Safely Defrost or Thaw Your Turkey

Defrost or thaw turkeys in the refrigerator, in a sink of cold water (changed every 30 minutes), or in the microwave. Never thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter. Bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature, so don’t thaw foods on the counter!

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A frozen turkey is safe indefinitely, but a thawing turkey must defrost at a safe temperature. When the turkey is left out at room temperature for more than two hours, its temperature becomes unsafe as it moves into the danger zone between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria can grow rapidly.
The easiest way to get that frozen bird thawed is in the refrigerator. It will defrost at a rate of about four pounds per day, so the average 16-pound turkey could take at least four days to completely thaw! If you fail to give your turkey enough time to thaw, it will cook on the outside, but the inside will be super raw.
Check out all the ways to thaw a turkey below in the infographic:

Cooking Safe Temperature

To make sure the turkey has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F, check by inserting a food thermometer into:

  1. the thickest part of the breast;
  2. the innermost part of the wing; and
  3. the innermost part of the thigh.



Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it within 2 hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for 4 days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover frozen turkey within 4 months.

Additional Resources

If you have questions about your turkey dinner, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at  1-888-674-6854 to talk to a food-safety expert. You can also chat live with a food-safety expert at AskKaren.gov, available from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. PST, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.