OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Thanksgiving Day is just a week away and the time to start meal preparations is rapidly approaching.

Though the side dishes may vary, turkey is the traditional centerpiece for the holiday.

Here are a few tips to safely prepare and preserve your bird.

How long does it take to thaw a turkey?

It depends on what method you use.

According to foodsafety.gov, you can thaw in the refrigerator (recommended), utilize the cold-water bath method or thaw in the microwave.

If you opt for the refrigerator, you should thaw for 24 hours for every 5 pounds. For the cold-water bath, it’s 30 minutes per pound. Check your user manual for thaw time using the microwave method.

Health officials say the turkey should never be thawed on the counter or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Should I wash the bird before I cook it?

No, according to food safety officials. Washing or rinsing any meat or poultry actually increases the risk you will cross-contaminate germs to other foods you’re preparing.

How long should I cook the turkey?

For big birds, you may be tempted to cook on low overnight, because of the length of time it takes to cook large turkeys. This could be dangerous, however. Per foodsafety.gov, “at lower temperatures, poultry stays in the Danger Zone (between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for too long.” The site states cooking poultry at oven temperatures lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit is not safe.

Rather, if you’re short on time, perhaps opt for an oven bag. The proper cook times for birds ranging in size are listed below:

  • 8-12 lb. turkey: 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
  • 12 to 16 lb. turkey: 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
  • 16-20 lb. turkey: 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
  • 20-24 lb. turkey: 3 to 3 1/2 hours.

Refer to the manufacturer provided instructions on the oven bags for specific timetables.

When do I know my turkey is ready?

The turkey is ready when it reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer.

How long to thaw a turkey graphic

Check the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing.

Stuffing or dressing?

The USDA does not recommend stuffing a turkey.

Stuffing your turkey will only make it take longer to cook and the stuffing must also reach the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. (If you choose to stuff your turkey, add 30 minutes to the cook time.)

What about the leftovers?

Leftovers should be stored within two hours of cooking. The food does not need to be room temperature before refrigeration/freezing. Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible, even if they still have steam or heat coming off of them.

Divide leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerate or freeze them in covered shallow containers so they cool quickly. A large container or whole turkey will take too long to cool down to a safe temperature, which gives bacteria a chance to multiply. 

Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days. After four days, spoilage bacteria can cause food to develop a bad smell or taste.

Health officials say this means you have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to eat all those delicious leftovers or place them in the freezer to enjoy later. If you store leftovers in the freezer, they can keep 2-6 months.

When reheating leftovers, be sure they re-reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit with a food thermometer before eating.

If you have any additional questions, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 (open on Thanksgiving Day from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.), chat live at ask.usda.gov from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or download the USDA’s FoodKeeper app.