Thanksgiving Turkey Tips [tip sheet]

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Hosting friends and family for Thanksgiving? Make sure you are up to date with the essential "know-hows," such as pounds needed per person, how long to thaw, how to best prepare and how long to cook. 

Buying Turkey

Buy 1 pound of turkey per person


There are different ways to safely thaw a turkey. Do not thaw a turkey at room temperature because bacteria will multiply quickly and make you sick.


  • The fridge temperature should be at or below 40°F.
  • Keep the turkey in its original wrapping, then place it into a large pan or container to prevent juices from getting onto other foods.
  • Plan a few days ahead. Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. For example, if you bought a 12-pound turkey, allow 3 days for the turkey to thaw completely.


Remove all the wrapping before putting it in the microwave. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed. Do not put it back in the refrigerator.

Fast Thaw Method

  • Keep the turkey in its original wrapping and put it in an ice chest or in a clean sink. Do not put the turkey in a bathtub.
  • Cover the turkey with cold water.
  • After it has thawed completely, refrigerate or cook.


  • Remove the wrapping, but do not wash the thawed turkey.
  • Wash your hands in warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after touching the raw turkey. Sanitize the area where you are preparing the turkey.
  • Remove the turkey’s insides (neck and giblets) from within the body cavity.
  • The “pop-up” tool should be placed into the thickest part of the breast before going into the oven.

Cooking & Temperature

  • The oven should not be below 325°F. Bacteria can survive at lower temperatures.
  • Place the turkey on a clean tray or pan to catch the juices lost when cooking. The internal temperature must reach 165°F in order to be safe to eat.
  • Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. The “pop-up” tool is not always accurate.
  • The amount of time to cook the turkey depends on the size. The chart below states the approximate amount of time it takes for the turkey to cook. There are many factors that can change the amount of cooking time. Your turkey may take longer than the times below.

Table: Turkey Cooking and Temperature

Weight of Turkey (pounds) Amount of Time for Unstuffed Turkey (Hours)
8-12 2 hr 45 min - 3 hr
12-14 3 hr - 3 hr 45 min
14-18 3 hr 45 min - 4 hr 15 min
18-20 4 hr 15 min - 4 hr 30 min
20-24 4 hr 30 min - 5 hr

    Storing Leftovers

    • Any leftover turkey should be refrigerated within 2 hour of serving. Place into shallow containers to stop bacterial growth.
    • All leftovers should be eaten within 3-4 days. The turkey can also be stored in the freezer for up to 2-6 months in sealed containers.


    Nutrition Connections Teacher
    Extension Field Specialist, Health & Well-Being
    Phone: (603) 796-2151 ext. 325
    Office: UNH Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824