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Cook Your Turkey like a P.R.O.

Posted by Kristina E Beaugh, MPH, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Health and Safety
Nov 25, 2015
Be sure to check the temperature of your turkey with a food thermometer in 3 places—the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh and wing.
Be sure to check the temperature of your turkey with a food thermometer in 3 places—the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh and wing.

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.  You may have 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’s you’re ready, let’s get cooking!

Wash Your Hands 

One of the most important ingredients for a delicious and food safe Thanksgiving meal is clean hands.  Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds throughout the cooking process, especially before handling food and after handling raw meat and poultry.  This is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of bacteria.  Often times, there tends to be multiple cooks in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day.  Make sure all of your helpers wash their hands before they touch any food.

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, 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 the 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 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 Campylobacter.

Take the turkey Out of the oven when it has reached a safe temperature and serve it to your family without worry!

What 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  Stay tuned for more advice on how to make your holidays happy and healthy for everyone at the table.

If you have additional questions about cooking a turkey, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time.  You can also ask questions of “Karen,” FSIS’ virtual representative, 24/7 at  Visit for questions in Spanish.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety