How to prepare and cook a turkey

Useful advice and tips on everything from choosing what turkey is best for you, to preparing and cooking it safely

Preparation

One gift you don’t want to give to family and friends over the festive season is food poisoning. If you follow the safe preparation and cooking advice, your Christmas meal should be one to remember – for all the right reasons.

Choosing your bird

The number of people eating turkey and how much meat you would like left over will determine what kind of turkey product you buy. You can choose from:

  • a whole turkey
  • turkey crown
  • saddle of turkey
  • pre-stuffed turkey

As a guideline, a good-sized turkey for the average family is six to eight pounds (3 to 3.5 kg).

Once bought, store your turkey safely before cooking. Most shops provide storage instructions with the turkey – be guided by these. The 'use by' date is normally found on the packaging if the turkey is wrapped.

If there are no instructions, fresh or defrosted raw poultry should be stored in the bottom of the fridge and cooked within two days.

Defrosting frozen turkeys

Frozen turkeys must be thoroughly defrosted before cooking. If it’s still partially frozen, it may not cook evenly and harmful bacteria could survive the cooking process. Work out the thawing time in advance, as large birds may take a couple of days to thaw fully. Check the packaging for any guidance.

If no guidance is available, the following suggestions provide a rough guideline on how long your turkey will take to thaw:

  • in a fridge at 4ºC (39ºF), allow about 10 to 12 hours per kg - remember that not all fridges will be this temperature
  • in a cool room (below 17.5ºC, 64ºF), allow approximately three to four hours per kg, longer if the room is particularly cold
  • at room temperature (about 20ºC, 68ºF) allow approximately two hours per kg

Remove the giblets and the neck (if present) as soon as possible as this speeds up thawing. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the raw bird, giblet, packaging or any other raw meat.

Put the turkey in a dish and cover

When you start defrosting, put the turkey on a large dish and cover. The dish will hold the liquid that comes out as the turkey thaws and prevent it from dripping onto other foods.

Covering the turkey ensures that it doesn’t cross-contaminate any other food nearby, especially any food that might be eaten raw. Use aluminium foil, cling film or other material designed for use with food.

Put the covered turkey and dish in the bottom of the fridge. Make sure it doesn’t touch other foods or drip onto them. If it’s not possible to defrost your turkey in the fridge, use a cool, clean place or a garage – watch out for sudden extremes in temperature and make sure that pets and young children are kept away.

Remember that the temperature of the place where the turkey is kept will affect thawing times.

Regularly pour away the liquid that comes out of the defrosting turkey to stop it overflowing and spreading bacteria. Avoid splashing the liquid onto worktops, dishes, cloths or other food. Use a fork to test the thickest part of the meat for ice, and check that there are no ice crystals in the cavity.

Don’t wash your turkey

Don’t wash your turkey, or any type of bird, before cooking. The splatters resulting from washing raw meat, particularly under running water, may cause bacteria to spread to other surfaces and foods, and result in cross-contamination. Any germs that might be present on the bird will be killed by cooking your turkey thoroughly.

When fully defrosted, put the turkey in the fridge until you're ready to cook. Do not keep it defrosted for more than two days. If this isn't possible, cook it immediately.

Cooking

When cooking a turkey (or other poultry), plan your cooking time in advance. A large turkey can take several hours to cook thoroughly, so make sure you get the bird in the oven early enough. Eating undercooked turkey (or other poultry) could cause food poisoning.

Work out the cooking time

To work out the cooking time, check the retailer’s instructions on the packaging. If there aren't any, use the following general guide. In an oven preheated to 180ºC (350ºF, Gas Mark 4):

  • allow 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes for a turkey under 4.5kg
  • allow 40 minutes per kg for a turkey that's between 4.5kg and 6.5kg
  • allow 35 minutes per kg for a turkey of more than 6.5kg

Cooking 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.

You should:

  • cook goose in a preheated oven at 200°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7 for 35 minutes per kg
  • cook duck in a preheated oven for 45 minutes per kg at 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6
  • cook chicken in a preheated oven at 180ºC/350ºF/Gas Mark 4 for 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes

These cooking times are based on an unstuffed bird. If you cook your bird with the stuffing inside, you need to allow extra cooking time for the stuffing and for the fact that the bird will cook more slowly.

Some fan assisted ovens may cook the turkey more quickly. Follow the guidance on the packaging and the manufacturer's handbook for your oven.

Knowing when the bird is cooked

The simplest way to know if the bird is cooked is to check that it is steaming hot all the way through. That means when you cut into the thickest part of the meat, no pinkness remains and that the juices run clear when you pierce the turkey or press the thigh.

Alternatively, you can check the thickest part (between the breast and the thigh) with a temperature probe or food thermometer. The core meat should reach a temperature of 70°C for two minutes.

A turkey crown (a whole bird with the legs removed), boneless turkey or other turkey cuts should be cooked exactly the same as a whole turkey. However, always follow the guidance given by the retailer from whom you bought the turkey crown.

Thermometers and probes

You can use a temperature probe or food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat while the bird is cooking. Clean the probe in hot, soapy water after each use to avoid spreading germs.

Ensure that the thickest part of the bird (between the breast and the thigh) reaches at least 70°C for more than two minutes.

A cooking thermometer is usually left in the bird while it cooks. It should be placed in the thickest part of the bird (between the breast and the thigh) from the start of cooking. The bird is cooked when the thermometer has reached 70°C for more than two minutes.

Pop-up timers indicate when the bird is thoroughly cooked. When the indicator stick (typically red) pops up, the bird is thoroughly cooked. You might want to double check this by ensuring that there is no pinkness in the thickest part of the meat and that the juices run clear when you pierce the turkey or press the thigh.

Cooking the turkey in advance

You can cook your turkey thoroughly in advance and then keep it until you’re ready to reheat and eat – either store it in the fridge for up to two days, or freeze it.

For fridge storage, ensure that the turkey is thoroughly cooked until steaming hot, that no pinkness remains and that any juices run clear. Then cool, cover, and put in the fridge within one to two hours of cooking - you can carve it into smaller portions to help it to cool more quickly. Then treat it as fresh and eat within two days of cooking.

If cooking the turkey more than two days in advance, the cooked meat should be frozen. Again, cook, cool, and then place in the freezer within one to two hours after cooking. The meat can safely be frozen for several months, though the quality may deteriorate with time.

Using leftovers

Leftover turkey can be kept in the fridge for up to two days. Large amounts of leftover food should be separated into portions before storing in the fridge or freezer.

Refrigerated leftover meat can be served cold, hot or used to make a new dish. If serving turkey cold, take out only as much as you're going to use and leave the rest in the fridge. If serving turkey hot, reheat the leftovers (don’t reheat more than once) until steaming hot throughout.

To use frozen leftover turkey, make sure it has been defrosted thoroughly in the fridge overnight or in a microwave on the defrost setting. If it is to be eaten hot, reheat until steaming hot again.

Vegetables: best served washed

It’s not just undercooked turkey that can cause problems at Christmas. Care needs to be taken with fruits and vegetables, too. Although they don’t pose as great a risk as raw meat, they can still harbour harmful bacteria that can be spread onto surfaces and other foods, where they could cause food poisoning.

Proper washing helps to remove any bacteria from the surface, as most of the bacteria will be in the soil attached to the produce. Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also remove bacteria.

Loose produce tends to have more soil attached to it than pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. When preparing vegetables for your Christmas meal, such as parsnips, carrots and potatoes, brush off any dry soil before washing. This may also help reduce the amount of washing required to clean the vegetables thoroughly.

Start with the least soiled items first. Don't simply hold them under a running tap – rub them under water, for example in a bowl of fresh water. This helps to reduce splashing and the possibility of bacteria being released into the air. And don’t forget to give them a final rinse.

Safety first

Bacteria can spread from raw meat, poultry and vegetables to worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils. To keep your Christmas meal safe, remember the following:

  • always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling raw food, including raw meat and vegetables. Wash your hands with warm water and soap, and dry them thoroughly
  • don’t wash your turkey (or any other poultry) before you cook it. If you do, any bacteria present can splash onto worktops, dishes and other foods. Proper cooking will kill any bacteria
  • check the label on pre-packed fruit and vegetables. Unless the packaging says 'ready-to-eat' you must wash, peel, or cook the produce before eating

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