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Talking turkey with SDSU Extension

If stuffing a turkey, it’s essential to use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees, SDSU Extension experts say. (AP photo)

BROOKINGS —  Planning ahead to safely prepare and roast the turkey this holiday season will relieve some of the cooking stress associated with large meal preparation said Sharon Guthmiller, SDSU Extension Food Safety Field Specialist.

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How much to buy, prepare

When purchasing a fresh or frozen turkey Guthmiller says a good rule of thumb is to allow one pound of turkey per person. She reminds cooks that frozen turkeys require several days to thaw.

“The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator that is set at 40 degrees or below,” she said. “Allow about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds.”

If the turkey is partially frozen when you are ready to roast Guthmiller suggests placing it in water at 70 degrees or colder and change the water every 15 minutes. Or, go directly to roasting.

“Do not stuff the turkey if it is still partially frozen,” she said.

Oven temperature to roast turkey should not be set lower than 325 degrees. Whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees as measured in the innermost part of the thigh with a food thermometer.

Stuffing safety

For optimal safety and uniform doneness, Guthmiller says to cook stuffing separately. However, if stuffing a turkey, it’s essential to use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.

“Even if the turkey itself has reached165 degrees, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria that may be present,” Guthmiller said.” Stuffing can act as an insulator to conducting heat, so temperatures must be measured to take the guess work out of cooking.”

If any meat, poultry or shellfish are used in the stuffing recipe, Guthmiller said to cook them thoroughly before stuffing the turkey.

“Keep the wet and dry ingredients of the stuffing separate, mixing them together just before spooning into the turkey cavity. Stuff the cavity loosely — about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of bird — so it can heat more efficiently,” she said. “Do not stuff poultry with cooked stuffing. And, do not stuff turkeys to be grilled, smoked, fried or microwaved.”

Turkeys can be purchased pre-stuffed, but only from a USDA Inspected plant. However, they must be in frozen at time of purchase and remain frozen until they are cooked. When preparing the turkey that was stuffed at a USDA Inspected plant, do not thaw the turkey but go directly to cooking.

Guthmiller added that the USDA recommends not purchasing retail-stuffed, uncooked turkeys from a store or restaurant.

“Stuffing works like an insulator, therefore it is important to follow guidelines,” she said.

Prep, cook in advance

To free up time during the day of the big meal, cooks can prepare the turkey one day before serving said Guthmiller.

“It may be easier than preparing it the day it will be served,” she said. “However, if you plan to prepare turkey a day ahead, follow these guidelines for cooling, storing and reheating turkey.”

Food safety

  • After the turkey is roasted and removed from the oven, let the turkey set about 20 minutes to allow the juices to distribute throughout.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before beginning to slice the turkey. Slice breast meat. Wings and legs may be left whole. Turkey should be placed in shallow containers (such as cake pans) to allow for faster cooling. Broth can be saved and refrigerated for making gravy.
  • Loosely cover the sliced turkey meat and place in the refrigerator while still warm. Cover tightly when completely cooled.
  • If cooking stuffing ahead of time, cook immediately when mixed, cool quickly in 2 inch depth containers, cover after cooled.
  • Turkey that is prepared for serving the next day can be eaten cold or hot. If planning to serve hot, reheat the turkey in the oven set at a temperature no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. The internal temperature must reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.
  • Do not reheat turkey, stuffing or gravy slowly. If reheated slowly, microorganisms that survived the normal cooking process, or contamination from handling the turkey before cooling, have ample time to grow and possibly produce toxins to make people sick. Reheating leftovers in a crockpot is not recommended.
  • Keep the turkey moist during reheating by adding a small amount of water or broth and cover. If reheating turkey in the microwave oven, cover the food and rotate it for even heating. Allow standing time. Check the internal temperature with a food thermometer to be sure it reaches 165 degrees. Using a microwave to reheat is not recommended for large amounts, and can lead to uneven heating.
  • If traveling with a precooked turkey, cooling the turkey as suggested above and use an insulated cooler with enough ice packs to keep the temperature of the turkey below 40 degrees. Reheat turkey to 165 degrees when you reach your destination. Gravy made the day before and refrigerated should be reheated to a rolling boil before serving it.


After the meal is complete, either freeze or eat leftover turkey within three to four days of the day it was originally prepared. Gravy and stuffing should be eaten within one to two days of original preparation date.

Guthmiller reminds cooks that after turkey, gravy and stuffing is removed from the oven, served or reheated, it should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours.

Source: South Dakota State University Extension