Published on 10/31/08

Time for turkey thawing, selection tips

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s time to talk turkey. There are many questions surrounding the age-old tradition: Should you buy fresh or frozen? How do you safely thaw a turkey? What’s the best stuffing? How do you cook the turkey without drying it out? How will you know when it’s done? Food safety experts with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension offer the answers.

“Whether to buy fresh or frozen is a personal preference,” said Judy Harrison, a UGA Cooperative Extension specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “What you use as stuffing is, too. But there are serious safety measures to keep in mind, especially if you only cook turkey once or twice each year.”

Buying and storing

If you buy a fresh turkey, check the date on the package and purchase only if the date has not passed. If the date is a “sell by” date, that is the last day the turkey can be sold. It is best to prepare the turkey by that date also. If it is a “use by” date, cook it by that date.

Fresh turkeys should be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook it. Put the bird on a tray or pan to catch any juices.

When serving fresh turkey, Harrison recommends allowing for one pound of turkey per person.

“Don’t buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys,” Harrison warns. “If not handled properly, any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiply very quickly.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends buying pre-stuffed turkeys only if they are frozen and display the USDA or state mark of inspection on the package. These turkeys are safe because they’ve been processed under controlled conditions.

Pre-stuffed turkeys should be cooked frozen, not thawed. Follow package directions for proper handling and cooking. Allow 1¼ pounds of turkey per person.

Thaw properly

If you choose a frozen turkey, allow one pound per person.

Safe handling begins when you store and defrost the bird. USDA recommends three ways to thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave.

“Never thaw a turkey on the counter,” Harrison said. “Room temperature is a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause food safety concerns.”

The basic rule for thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey. Once thawed, refrigerate the turkey for no more than one to two days before you cook it.

If you don’t have room in the refrigerator for a big bird, use the cold water thawing method. Harrison says follow these steps:

1) Submerge the bird or cut-up parts in cold water in its airtight packaging or in a leak-proof bag.

2) Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey.

3) Change the water every 30 minutes to be sure it stays cold.

The following times are suggested for thawing a turkey in water:

8 to 12 pound turkey, 4 to 6 hours

12 to 16 pound turkey, 6 to 8 hours

16 to 20 pound turkey, 8 to 10 hours

20 to 24 pound turkey, 10 to 12 hours

Cook the turkey immediately after it’s thawed, Harrison said.

Turkeys can be kept frozen indefinitely, however for best quality, they should be wrapped in freezer packaging and cooked within one year, she said.

The third way to thaw a turkey is in the microwave.

“Because every microwave is different, it’s very important to carefully follow the manufacturer instructions,” Harrison said. “The instruction manual should tell you how long to defrost per pound of turkey and what kind of container to put the bird in.”

Microwave-thawed turkeys should be cooked immediately after thawing.

Turkey handling instructions from the USDA are available at .

An easy to follow chart to help plan ahead is available from UGA online at

(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.