Handling Turkey Safely

Improper handling of raw poultry can set the stage for cross-contamination — the spread of salmonella bacteria from foods, hands, utensils and food preparation surfaces to another food. Here's how to stop it.
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At the Store

The key to safe and delicious turkey is buying it fresh (or frozen-fresh), free of preservatives and additives, then getting it home quickly.

  • Buy your turkey last. If your trip home takes longer than 30 minutes, bring a cooler to keep the meat cool.
  • Separate raw meat from ready-to-eat foods in your shopping cart. Consider placing raw foods inside plastic bags in your shopping cart to keep the juices contained.

Frozen Whole Turkey 

  • Store at 0°F or below.
  • Thaw under refrigeration, in cold water, or the microwave.
    • Refrigerator: Allow approximately 24 hours per four to five pounds to thaw in the refrigerator
    • Cold Water: Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound to thaw in cold water. Do not use warm or hot water and change the water every 30 minutes.
    • Microwave: Follow the microwave manufacturer's directions. Begin to roast the turkey immediately following the microwave process.

Fresh Whole Turkey

  • Place fresh turkey in a refrigerator that maintains 40°F. Place a pan underneath to catch juices.
  • Use it within the timeframe on the package, or freeze the poultry at 0°F.

Fresh Turkey Cuts

  • Wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before and after handling raw turkey.
  • Sanitize kitchen countertops that come into contact with raw turkey. One teaspoon of liquid chlorine bleach per quart of clean water will sanitize surfaces. Leave the solution on the surface for about 10 minutes to be effective.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with soap and hot water after contact with raw turkey.
  • Refrigerate or freeze your turkey in its original packaging as soon as possible after purchasing. Prevent raw turkey juices from dripping onto other foods by placing raw foods in sealed containers or sealable plastic bags.
  • Label each package with the date, name of chicken cut and weight or number of servings. Practice the FIFO inventory system: first in, first out.

Leftover Cooked Turkey

  • Remove stuffing and meat from the cooked whole turkey. Store in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze within two hours of cooking.
  • The National Turkey Federation recommends that cooked turkey reach 40°F within two hours or less. When reheating, be sure the turkey reaches a temperature of 165°F.
  • Turkey gravy should be used within 1 to 2 days. Bring the gravy to a boil before serving.

Before You Cook: S-E-P-A-R-A-T-E

  • Rinse turkey and pat dry with paper towels before cooking. Cutting boards, knives and hands must be washed in hot soapy water before and after using.
  • Place cooked food on a clean plate for serving. If cooked food is placed on an unwashed plate that previously held raw meat, bacteria from the raw food could contaminate the cooked food.
  • Cook turkey completely to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer. Never partially cook turkey and then finish later, since this promotes bacterial growth.

Related Articles:

Turkey Purchasing Pointers from the National Turkey Federation
Let's Talk Turkey—A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey