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Home | KNDY News | Let’s Talk Turkey with Gina Aurand of River Valley Extension

Let’s Talk Turkey with Gina Aurand of River Valley Extension

By Gina Aurand, DEA, Foods & Nutrition, River Valley Extension District

Unbelievably the holidays are right around the corner.  That means family, friends, and of course, food.  Turkey is the traditional holiday meat served for the holidays, especially at Thanksgiving.  There are many questions that can come with selecting and preparing the bird.


There is no significant difference in quality between a fresh or frozen turkey. That is purely personal preference.  However there are some things you may want to consider when shopping for the perfect bird.  Look for an inspection mark on the label.  This lets you know that the turkey has been inspected and is safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled.  Look for the USDA grade mark.  A grade A turkey will have a well developed layer of fat in the skin, and are practically free of pinfeathers, bruises, cuts, tears on the breast and legs, and broken bones.  You will want to pay attention to the age category on the label.  The younger the turkey, the more tender and mild the flavor will be.  Most turkeys sold in stores are young and will be labeled “young turkey”.  This means that the bird is usually four to six months of age.

Look at the sell by date.  This is the last day that the turkey should be sold.  This is especially important if you are selecting a fresh turkey. The turkey will maintain optimal quality and safety for one or two days after this date.  A fresh turkey should be refrigerated immediately when you get it home.  Be sure your refrigerator is at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.   The turkey needs to be prepared within 48 hours of being purchased.


A frozen turkey can be stored up to one year without loss of quality.  If you have selected a pre-stuffed turkey it is important that you DO NOT thaw, but cook it directly from the frozen state.  This is because thawing will allow bacteria to develop in the stuffing while the turkey thaws.  The best way to defrost a turkey is to place it on a cookie sheet in the refrigerator for 24 hours for every five pounds of bird.  You can also place the turkey in the sink and cover it completely with cold water.  This method will take about 30 minutes per pound.  You should change the water every 30 minutes.  You cannot thaw on the kitchen counter because room temperature falls between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit which is the optimal temperature range for bacterial growth.  The turkey will thaw from the outside in so as the surface warms bacteria will multiply to dangerous levels.  Cooking may not destroy all the bacteria and some bacteria produce toxins that can withstand heat.

Size of Turkey

Thawing  In the Refrigerator

Thawing in Cold Water

8 – 12 pounds

1 to 2 days 4 to 6 hours

12 – 16 pounds

2 to 3 days

6 to 8 hours

16 – 20 pounds

3 to 4 days

8 to 10 hours

20 – 24 pounds 4 to 5 days

10 to 12 hours


Once thawed, remove the neck and giblets from the body cavities.  Wash the inside and outside of the turkey and the giblets in cold water and drain well.   Then cook in the method that you prefer.

Is It Done?

Using a meat thermometer is the only true way to check for doneness in the turkey and stuffing.  You want to put the thermometer in the inner thigh and breast of whole turkeys being sure not to touch a bone or place the thermometer in the center of the thickest part of turkey pieces.  The temperature needs to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you have stuffed the turkey you want to remove all of the stuffing right away.  Bacteria are more likely to grow in the stuffing if it sits in the bird.  You can hold the stuffing in the oven at 200 degrees until you are ready to serve. Allow the turkey to stand for 15 minutes before carving.

Storing Leftovers

From the time it leaves the oven you have two hours to serve and then either refrigerate or freeze the leftover turkey and stuffing.  Turkey can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days.  If you don’t think that you will use it before then, it is best to place it in an appropriate freezer container and freeze it right away.  The cooked turkey can be frozen for one month.

There are many hotlines available for last minute questions during the holidays.  Butterball Turkey Talk-Line:  1-800-288-8372, HoneySuckle White:  1-800-810-6325, Reynolds Wrap Turkey Tips Line:  1-800-745-4000.

Hopefully this will help you prepare your holiday turkey with ease!

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