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USDA gives tips on properly cooking Thanksgiving turkey to avoid foodborne illnesses

Don't Wash Turkey
Posted at 12:06 PM, Nov 18, 2021

Thanksgiving is a time for feasting with loved ones, but with all that cooking, it’s important to keep food safety in mind.

Ahead of the holiday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released several tips on avoiding foodborne illnesses.

Clean and sanitize

First, the USDA emphasizes how important it is to always wash your hands before preparing and handling food to help prevent the spread of germs.

“Recent USDA observational research showed that 95% of participants failed to properly wash their hands before handing food,” the USDA said.

It’s also important to clean and sanitize any surfaces that will touch food, such as tabletops, kitchen counters, stoves, and sinks.

Avoid cross-contamination

The USDA is also urging Americans to avoid cross-contamination when cooking their Thanksgiving meals.

In a recent study, the USDA says it found 60% of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after participants washed or rinsed poultry.

While the USDA advises against washing turkeys, if you do wash yours in a sink, it should be fully cleaned and sanitized afterward.

“To clean, rub down surfaces — including the sink, cutting boards and counter tops — with soap and hot water, and then sanitize them with a cleaning solution to remove any residual germs,” said the USDA. “You can use a homemade solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Let the surfaces air dry. Be sure to use separate cutting boards—one for meat and another for vegetables and fruit.”

Thaw turkeys safely

When it comes to thawing turkeys, the USDA says to never thaw them on a counter or in hot water. The department recommends thawing turkeys in a refrigerator because it allows for slow and safe defrosting.

The turkey will need about 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey. After thawing, it is safe to store in the refrigerator for one to two days,” said the USDA.

Officials say turkeys can also be thawed in cold-water baths or microwaves, but they must be cooked immediately after they’ve thawed using these methods.

“If using the cold-water method, allow 30 minutes per pound and submerge the turkey in its original wrapping to avoid cross-contamination,” said the USDA. “It’s safe to cook a turkey from its frozen state; however, it will take at least 50% longer to fully thaw.”

Lastly, officials say to never leave a raw turkey out at room temperature for more than two hours.

Cook turkeys thoroughly

When it’s time to cook your turkey, the USDA says to make sure the bird reaches an internal temperature of 165° F.

Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature in three parts: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh.

If you’re cooking a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, the USDA says to check the temperature with a food thermometer to ensure it reaches 165° F at the thickest part of the breast.

Additionally, all previously cooked side dishes should be reheated to 165° F.

Stuffing turkeys

The USDA doesn’t recommend stuffing turkeys because it can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not prepared carefully. But if you plan to do so, officials say to prepare wet and dry ingredients separately and refrigerate them until they’re ready to be used. You should also stuff the turkey loosely, about ¾ of a cup of stuffing per pound. You should immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325° F. Allow more time for a stuffed turkey to cook. And lastly, let the cooked turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing.

The Two-Hour Rule

The USDA says all perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours of being cooked, or one hour if the temperature is 90° F or above.

“After two hours, perishable food will enter the ‘Danger Zone’ (between 40° F and 140° F), which is where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause the food to become unsafe,” said the USDA.

Discard all foods that have been left out for more than two hours.


One of the best parts of Thanksgiving is the leftovers. After your meal, officials say to separate larger quantities of leftovers in small shallow containers and place them in the refrigerator. Thanksgiving leftovers are safely stored in a fridge for up to four days.

If you put leftovers in a freezer, officials say they can be safely frozen indefinitely but will keep the best quality for two to six months.

Reheat leftovers to an internal temperature of 165° F.