Focus on Food Safety for the Holidays: Temperature

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This time of year is filled with joy, laughter, beautiful changing colors and the warmth of family and friends. Most families will gather around delicious spreads of Fall’s harvest. During this time, Extension receives many questions about preparing holiday meals. Among our most frequent questions include:

    • What size bird should I purchase to feed a family of ___?
    • How do I know when my turkey is done?
    • What is the best way to thaw a turkey?

These questions address some of the most important food safety concerns for preparing a holiday meal. Yet, the questions have one common factor: TEMPERATURE. Temperature is a key component of meal preparation. Leaving food out too long, improper thawing or improper cooking temperatures can place food in the danger zone (between 40 ℉ and 140 ℉). It is important to know the facts.

In addition to the video above from NC State Cooperative Extension, we have included helpful resources below from USDA to assist you in maintaining a food safe holiday meal:

 What size bird should I purchase to feed a family of ___?

Type of Turkey Pounds to Buy
Whole bird 1 pound per person
Boneless breast of turkey 1/2 pound per person
Breast of turkey 3/4 pound per person
Prestuffed frozen turkey 1 1/4 pounds per person – keep frozen until ready to cook

How do I know when my turkey is done?

Cooking Time — Unstuffed
Size of Turkey Hours to Prepare
8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours
Cooking Time — Stuffed
Size of Turkey Hours to Prepare
8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours

What is the best way to thaw a turkey?

The preferred method for thawing your holiday bird is in the refrigerator. Use this chart to assess the time needed:

Thawing Time in the Refrigerator
Size of Turkey Number of Days
4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days

If you don’t have the space in your refrigerator, a secondary option is using cold water. Submerge the turkey completely in cold water, being careful to change the water every 30 minutes. This method requires you to cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

Thawing Time in Cold Water
Size of Turkey Hours to Defrost
4 to 12 pounds 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 10 to 12 hours

Do you have additional questions about your holiday meal? Contact your local Extension office at 704.336.2082.

Written By

Photo of Kristin DavisKristin DavisExtension Agent, Local Foods / FCS (704) 336-4006 kristin_davis@ncsu.eduMecklenburg County, North Carolina
Updated on Nov 12, 2015
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