Monday, November 19, 2012
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Safe food handling for a healthier holiday

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[November 19, 2012]  SPRINGFIELD -- With only days to go before Thanksgiving, it's important to think about what you're going to cook, especially if it's a turkey.

"Two of the most important things to remember to avoid foodborne illnesses are to make sure to fully thaw and cook the turkey, and properly wash your hands, utensils and anything else that comes into contact with raw meats or juices," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

If you decide to prepare a fresh turkey, buy it no more than two days ahead of the big meal and make sure you have room to store it in the refrigerator.

If you chose a frozen turkey, make sure the turkey is completely thawed in the refrigerator. Never defrost a turkey on the kitchen counter. To thaw in the refrigerator, allow approximately 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey. The turkey should be placed on a tray or pan to catch any juices that may leak. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator safely for one to two days. If the inner cavity is still frozen or even partially frozen when you put the turkey in the oven, the inside temperature will not be hot enough to destroy disease-causing bacteria.

Thawing time in the refrigerator
(40 degrees F or below)

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

It is safer to cook the stuffing separately, but if you do stuff the bird, do so just before cooking it, and stuff it loosely so it cooks thoroughly. If stuffing is mixed the day before the meal, premix only the dry ingredients. Mixing moist ingredients ahead of time allows bacteria an opportunity to grow.

Approximate cooking times for turkey
(325 degrees F oven temperature)


Size of turkey

Cooking time

4 to 8 pounds (breast)

1 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours

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

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Size of turkey

Cooking time

6 to 8 pounds (breast)

2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours

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

If you use a turkey fryer, make sure the turkey is completely thawed, and be careful with marinades. Oil and water don't mix, and water can cause oil to spill over, starting a fire or even an explosion hazard. Most turkey fryers have no thermostat controls, increasing their potential to overheat cooking oil to the point of combustion.

To check the temperature of the turkey, insert a meat thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the thigh, breast or stuffing. All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165 degrees F. The stuffing should also reach 165 degrees, whether it is cooked inside the turkey or in a separate dish.

It is important to immediately refrigerate leftovers. If they are left to sit for several hours at room temperature, disease-causing bacteria can grow. Also, refrigerate stuffing and other leftovers separately from the bird.

When eating leftovers, they need to be either very cold (directly from the refrigerator) or very hot (at least 165 degrees). Refrigerated turkey and stuffing should be used within three to four days and gravy within a day or two.

Avoid spending this holiday season feeling ill because of foodborne illnesses from Salmonella, Listeria or E. coli (Escherichia coli O157:H7) bacteria by following the above tips.

For more information about safe holiday cooking, visit

[Text from Illinois Department of Public Health file received from the Illinois Office of Communication and Information]

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