Cook the perfect turkey with our tips on defrosting, preparing and cooking poultry safely, and how to store leftovers.
Defrosting your turkey
If you buy a frozen turkey, make sure it's properly defrosted before cooking. If it's still partially frozen, it may not cook evenly, which means that harmful bacteria could survive the cooking process.
Defrosting should be done in the fridge if possible (or somewhere cool, if not) and separated from other foods, in a dish or container large enough to catch any defrosted juices. This is important to stop bacteria from spreading.
- Work out defrosting time in advance, so you know how much time to allow. It can take at least a couple of days for a large turkey to thaw.
- When you start defrosting, take the turkey out of its packaging, put it on a large dish and cover it. The dish will hold the liquid that comes out while thawing.
- Remove the giblets and neck as soon as possible to speed up the thawing process. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any part of the raw turkey.
- Before cooking, make sure there aren't any ice crystals in the bird's cavity. Test the thicker parts of the turkey with a fork to check if the meat feels frozen.
- Turkey (and any other poultry) is best defrosted in a covered dish at the bottom of the fridge so that it can't drip onto other foods.
- Pour away the liquid that comes out of the defrosting turkey regularly to stop it overflowing and spreading bacteria. Be careful not to splash the liquid onto worktops, dishes, cloths or other food.
- Bear in mind what else you have stored in the fridge. Cooked meats and other ready-to-eat foods should be covered and stored higher up.
- If the bird is too big for the fridge, put it somewhere out of reach from animals and children, and where it won't touch other foods. A cool room, shed or garage are all good places.
- If you're not using the fridge, watch out for sudden changes in room temperature, as they could prevent the turkey from thawing evenly.
To work out the defrosting time for your turkey, first check the packaging for any guidance. If there aren't any defrosting instructions, use the following times to work out roughly how long it will take to thaw your turkey:
- In a fridge at 4C (39F), allow 10 to 12 hours per kilogram. Be aware that not all fridges will be set to this temperature.
- In a cool room (below 17.5C/64F), allow around 3 to 4 hours per kilogram, or longer if the room is particularly cold.
- At room temperature (about 20C/68F), allow approximately 2 hours per kilogram.
When your turkey is fully defrosted, put it in the fridge until you're ready to cook it. If this isn't possible, make sure you cook it immediately.
Preparing the turkey
Bacteria can spread from raw meat and poultry to worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils.
Here are some tips to keep your Christmas food safe:
- After touching raw poultry or other raw meat, always wash your hands with warm water and soap, and dry them thoroughly.
- Don't wash your turkey before your cook it. If you do, bacteria from raw poultry can splash onto worktops, dishes and other foods. Proper cooking will kill any bacteria.
- Always clean worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils with warm soapy water after they have touched raw poultry or meat.
- Never use the same chopping board for raw poultry or meat and ready-to-eat food without washing it thoroughly with warm soapy water first. If possible, keep a separate chopping board just for raw meat and poultry.
Cooking your turkey
Plan your cooking time in advance to make sure you get the bird in the oven early enough to cook it thoroughly. A large turkey can take several hours to cook properly, and eating undercooked turkey (or other poultry) could cause food poisoning.
Three ways you can tell a turkey is cooked:
- the meat is steaming hot all the way through
- there's no pink meat when you cut into the thickest part of the bird
- the juices run clear when you pierce the turkey or press the thigh
If you're using a temperature probe or food thermometer, ensure the thickest part of the bird (between the breast and the thigh) reaches at least 70C for 2 minutes.
Turkey cooking times
The cooking times above are based on an unstuffed bird. It's safer to cook your stuffing in a separate roasting tin, rather than inside the bird so that it cooks more easily and the guidelines are more accurate.
If you cook your bird with the stuffing inside, you need to allow extra time for the stuffing and for the fact that it cooks more slowly.
Some ovens, like fan-assisted ones, may cook the bird more quickly - check the guidance on the packaging and the manufacturer's handbook for your oven if you can.
As a general guide, in an oven preheated to 180C (350F, gas mark 4):
- allow 45 minutes per kilogram, plus 20 minutes, for a turkey under 4.5kg
- allow 40 minutes per kilogram for a turkey that's between 4.5kg and 6.5kg
- allow 35 minutes per kilogram for a turkey of more than 6.5kg
Cover your turkey with foil during cooking but uncover it for the final 30 minutes to brown the skin. To stop the meat drying out, baste it every hour during cooking.
Where available, follow cooking instructions on the pack.
Cooking times for other birds
Other birds, such as goose and duck, require different cooking times and temperatures. The oven should always be hotter for duck and goose in order to melt the fat under the skin.
- Goose should be cooked in a preheated oven at 200C/400F/gas mark 6 for 35 minutes per kilogram.
- Duck should be cooked in a preheated oven for 45 minutes per kilogram at 200C/400F/gas mark 6.
- Chicken should be cooked in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 45 minutes per kilogram, plus 20 minutes
Where available, follow cooking instructions on the pack.
Keep cooked meat and poultry in the fridge - if they are left out at room temperature, the bacteria that causes food poisoning can grow and multiply.
After you've feasted on the turkey, cool any leftovers as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes), cover them and put them in the fridge.
If you're putting leftovers in the freezer, you could divide them into portions so you can defrost only as much as you need.
When you're serving cold turkey, take out only as much as you're going to use and put the rest back in the fridge. Don't leave a plate of turkey or cold meats out all day - as part of a buffet, for example.
If you're reheating leftover turkey or other food, always make sure it's steaming hot all the way through before you eat it. Don't reheat food more than once. Ideally, use leftovers within 48 hours.
Article provided by NHS Choices