Thanksgiving Turkey Prep: Your Questions Answered

Answers to questions from WebMD's Facebook audience.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 17, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

No matter what else you have to be thankful for this year, you and your guests will be abundantly grateful for a bird that’s well and safely cooked.

Below, Toby Smithson, RD, LDN, CDE, a national spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly called the American Dietetic Association), answers our readers’ most pressing questions about how to best prepare a Thanksgiving turkey.

What is the best way to defrost a turkey? And how long does it take to thaw?

There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

The refrigerator takes the longest -- a day for every 4-5 pounds -- but it gets my vote for being the safest.

Covering a turkey with cold water takes 30 minutes per pound, but you have to change the water every half hour.

The microwave is the quickest, but it can do an uneven job, and you have to cook the turkey immediately after defrosting.

With the refrigerator method, you don’t have to do anything other than put a reminder on your calendar so you don’t forget to start defrosting a few days before Thanksgiving.

What size turkey should I buy?

My rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person. But dietary guidelines say that two to four ounces of lean meat is a healthy serving.

At what temperature do you cook a turkey?

325 degrees Fahrenheit is the best temperature, though it is really a matter of personal preference. Some recipes start with a high temperature to brown the bird, then tell you to lower it.

How long do you cook your turkey? For example, a 14-pound bird...

That bird will take you about three and a quarter hours, but internal temperature of the turkey -- not the time spent in the oven -- is the more important cooking criteria.

How do you know when your turkey is done?

The internal temperature of the innermost part of the breast should read 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If you stuff your turkey, the stuffing should also cook to 165 degrees. At that temperature, any bacteria, such as salmonella, will be killed, leaving you with a bird that’s safe to eat.

A thermometer is your key tool. You will want a meat thermometer for your turkey, and ideally you will also have a refrigerator thermometer to be certain your fridge temp is below 40 degrees.

What’s the difference between a regular turkey you get at the grocery store and a fresh turkey? Do they taste different? Do you prepare them differently?

There’s no nutritional difference between a frozen turkey purchased at the supermarket compared to a fresh turkey, and there’s no difference in how they are prepared.

As for taste, it’s a matter of preference, and I haven’t eaten enough fresh turkeys to be able to say which one tastes better.

What do people mean when they say they cook their turkey in a “slow oven?”

A “slow oven” is an oven that is heated to about 300 degrees, so that it cooks food more slowly. 325 degrees is also considered slow, just not as slow as 300.

As with the question of frozen versus fresh turkey, cooking a turkey in a slow oven is a matter of personal preference. Some people say that it tastes so much better when cooked this way.

Whatever temperature you choose to set your oven, the bottom line is that it's the turkey’s internal temperature that’s most important.

What is the danger of eating an undercooked turkey or an undercooked ham?

It’s a bacteria issue. With poultry, an undercooked turkey might still contain live salmonella, which can make you quite sick. Undercooked ham has its own bad-for-you bacteria; it should also be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

How long can you leave your Thanksgiving dinner on the table before running the risk of it spoiling? Are there any particular items you should be concerned about?

You have two hours from the time you take your food out of the oven until it needs to be refrigerated.

In particular, make sure you refrigerate the turkey, stuffing, gravy, anything with milk and anything with eggs, and rice.

Basically, anything with a little bit of protein in it can become hazardous if left out too long.