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Thanksgiving food preparation and safety tips

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Thanksgiving is next week and this often means a lot of cooking for holiday dinners. Improper storing and cooking of a turkey dinner can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria, and serving that dinner could cause food-borne illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annually there are nearly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths as the result of improperly cooked food. Two primary causes of food-borne illnesses are eating foods that are not thoroughly cooked and improper refrigeration. Cooking foods to proper temperatures and proper refrigeration will help stop the growth of disease-causing bacteria that can lead to possible food poisoning.

Here are some helpful tips to keep your Thanksgiving dinner safe.

Tips for storing:

- Store the turkey in the freezer if bought earlier in the month.
- Store it in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours prior to cooking.
- Keep the turkey in original packaging and place in a pan to avoid juices from getting into other produce or food in the refrigerator.

Refrigerator Thawing:

- Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator at 40 degrees for 24 hours for every four or five pounds before cooking it.


- Four to 12 pounds: one to three days
- 12 to 16 pounds: three to four days
- 16 to 20 pounds: four to five days
- 20 to 24 pounds: five to six days

Cold Water Thawing:

- Allow about 30 minutes per pound; be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water.
- Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water, change water every 30 minutes, and cook immediately after thawing.

Cold Water Thawing Times:

- Four 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


- Wash hands with soap and hot water before handling food items.
- Make sure work areas and food contact surfaces are clean and sanitized.
- Use a cutting board for meats and a separate cutting board for fruits or vegetables.
- Keep raw meats away from vegetables and side dishes that do not need to be cooked.
- Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees and be sure the turkey is completely thawed before cooking.
- Use a food thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 165 degrees. The turkey should stand for 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat.
- The food danger zone is between 40 to 140 degrees. Foods should remain either below or above these temperatures.

Unstuffed turkey cooking times:

Four to eight pounds: 1-1/2 to 3-1/4 hours
Eight 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

Stuffed turkey cooking times:

Eight 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

Storing leftovers:

-Store leftovers within two hours after serving.
-Use shallow storage containers.
-Store leftovers in the refrigerator if planning to eat them within three days. Keep food in freezer for longer storage.
-All leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees.

For further information, contact the Public Health Office at 781-225-6295.

For information on other methods for cooking a turkey call the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or (TellyTYpe) TTY: 1-800-674-6854.

Additional information is available at www.cdc.gov and www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/seasonal-food-safety/seasonal-food-safety.