The perfect turkey should look and taste good. But that’s not all you need to consider when cooking your turkey this Christmas. You’ll need to make sure it is properly cooked because an undercooked turkey could leave you and your guests with food poisoning.
Food poisoning can lead to serious illness or even death.
Minimise the risk by following this step-by-step guide to safely cooking the perfect turkey.
Defrost or thaw the turkey
The safest way to defrost a turkey is in the refrigerator. Place it in a container and store it at the bottom of your fridge so it can’t drip onto cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
You can also defrost a turkey by placing it in a leak-proof plastic bag and into a sink of cold water. Make sure you change the water every 30 minutes to prevent the water from warming up.
Avoid thawing your turkey by leaving it out on the counter at room temperature. When a turkey is left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, its temperature can rise to a level that encourages bacteria to grow rapidly.
How long does it take to defrost a turkey?
The time it takes to defrost a turkey depends on its size. Check the packaging for guidance on how long to thaw your turkey. If there are no defrosting instructions, a rough guide to follow is to allow:
- 10 to 12 hours per kilogram when defrosting the turkey in a fridge at 4C (39F)
- 3 to 4 hours per kilogram when defrosting a turkey in a cool room (you may need longer if the room is particularly cold)
If you don’t plan to cook your turkey as soon as it’s fully defrosted, put it in the fridge until you're ready to cook it.
How to safely prepare a turkey
Undercooking your turkey is not the only way you can get food poisoning from it. Bacteria from an uncooked turkey can spread to other foods or surfaces while preparing it.
Keep your Christmas food safe and avoid contaminating your worktops and cooking equipment by:
- washing your hands with soap and water after touching raw meat or poultry
- not washing your turkey before you cook it - doing so can spread bacteria as water splashes off the turkey
- using different chopping boards for raw meat and ready-to-eat food
- washing everything that comes in contact with raw turkey and its juices with soap and water
How to safely cook a turkey
If you plan on serving stuffing with your turkey, it’s safest to cook it separately in a casserole dish. This ensures that the stuffing is properly cooked.
If you decide to cook the stuffing inside your turkey, remember to:
- put the stuffing in the turkey just before cooking
- allow extra time for the stuffing to cook
- use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s centre reaches 74C (165°F)
- wait 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing the stuffing - this allows it to cook a little more
Before cooking your turkey make sure you’ve removed the giblets and neck, and that there aren't any ice crystals in the cavity. Use a fork to prod the thicker parts of the turkey. If the flesh feels soft and defrosted, it’s ready to cook.
How long does it take to cook a turkey?
To cook the perfect turkey, start by setting the oven temperature to at least 162C (325F). Place the defrosted turkey in a deep roasting pan. Turkey cooking times vary according to the weight of the turkey, so read the packaging on your turkey or your oven’s instruction manual to find out how long to cook your turkey.
Check that the turkey has reached a safe internal temperature of 165F by inserting a food thermometer into the centre of the stuffing and the thickest portions of the breast, thigh and wing.
How to tell if a turkey is cooked
A turkey is safely cooked when:
- the juices run clear when you pierce the turkey
- the meat is steaming hot all the way through
- there's no pink meat when you cut into the thickest part of the bird
You may think the risk of food poisoning is over once your turkey is cooked, but it isn’t.
The bacteria that cause food poisoning can quickly multiply if cooked food is left out at room temperature for too long. Cool leftovers within 90 minutes, cover them and put them in the fridge.
Slice or divide big cuts of meat into small pieces before refrigeration. This will help them cool quickly.
It’s fine to reheat leftovers, but do so only once and heat them to at least 165F before serving. Aim to use leftovers within 48 hours or store them in the freezer.
Christmas isn’t the only time you can get food poisoning. Read more tips about preparing food safely during the holiday season and beyond.