Demystifying the Annual Rites of Turkey

turkey - clemson
Photo: Clemson Extension

Preparing a Thanksgiving turkey—whether it’s your very first or you are a (poultry) seasoned veteran—can be scary. There are so many ways to prepare a turkey. Brining and deep frying have become popular lately, but many still prefer a simple, old fashioned, golden roasted turkey. 

Buy/store your turkey

Whether you buy a locally produced fresh turkey or a fresh, but maybe not local turkey, be sure to check the “sell by” date. You will need to cook a turkey within 2 days of the sell by date. Frozen turkeys are often a less expensive alternative—and the use-by date is more flexible. Be sure to refrigerate as soon as you get it home:  place your frozen turkey in the freezer, unless it is time to defrost it. Choose the turkey by the size of your guest list—about one and a half to two pounds per person; more if you like lots of leftovers!

Defrost your turkey

It is best to defrost a turkey in the refrigerator, keep in mind it can take a few days (approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds). A smaller turkey can be defrosted in cold water, changing the water every half hour. It is not recommended that you defrost a turkey larger than 12 pounds in a microwave oven; follow the label on your turkey and always cook immediately after defrosting in the microwave.

Cook your turkey

There are lots of recipes for cooking turkey on the Internet. But remember; just because it is on the Internet, it does not mean that a recipe makes sense or will work or even make a safe turkey! Cooking a turkey overnight at 250 °F is a recipe for illness and disaster. A turkey should be cooked at a temperature no lower than 325 °F; until a thermometer in the meaty part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh/wing AND, if stuffed, the center of the stuffing reads 165 °F is a turkey that will be safe. Remember, you cannot tell the temperature of a turkey without a thermometer. Do not rely on pop-up timers to save the day. You want to be sure that your guests will not only enjoy the turkey, but won’t have to spend black Friday in the restroom.

After dinner

As soon as dinner is over, get busy removing the stuffing and chopping the turkey meat off the bones so that you can get all the good leftovers in the fridge no more than four hours (two is better) after you first served the bird. Store in shallow containers. Be sure to use or freeze your leftovers within 3-5 days.

Visit the United States Department of Agriculture site at for a wealth of good, safe information on the Internet. Click on the “tip of the day” for many helpful resources for choosing, storing, preparing, and cooking your turkey—including how to brine and deep fry your turkey.