Talking turkey: tips for preparing holiday foods

Whether you’re a novice at cooking, or are the experienced short-order cook at your house, chances are that you don’t prepare a 14-pound holiday turkey and all the trimmings every day. Kansas State University’s Karen Blakeslee says there are ways to avoid last-minute stress and keep food safe when putting it all together.

Blakeslee, the coordinator of the K-State Research and Extension Rapid Response Center, provided these tips for before and after the holiday meal:

Make a list well in advance of the holiday. Include in your list, a timeline when activities should happen, whether five days before the meal, two days before or two hours before. Will the turkey go in the oven? In a countertop roaster? If the turkey will take up the oven, think about other foods you’ll prepare and how. Stovetop? Pressure cooker?

Consider asking guests to bring a dish.

Wash your hands often, including before, during and after food preparation.

If you want a fresh turkey, order it ahead so your store will have it ready. Typically you’d pick it up the week of the holiday, maybe a day or two prior.

A frozen turkey can be purchased much earlier. Store it in the freezer until it’s time to thaw and cook it. Watch for sales at this time of year.

How long to thaw the turkey depends on how big the size of the turkey. Plan for a 12- to 16-pound turkey to thaw for a full week in the refrigerator. If thawing a smaller one, move it from the freezer to the refrigerator the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Did you forget to thaw the bird in advance? Submerge it in clean, cool water in a large pot, but change the water every 30 minutes or so. This takes a few hours as opposed to several days in the refrigerator.

If all else fails and you completely forget, the turkey can be cooked from a frozen state, but it will take about 1-1/2 times the amount of time to cook a thawed turkey.

When prepping the turkey, there’s no need to wash it. Food scientists say rinsing the bird can splash water with bacteria on countertops and other foods. Cooking it will take care of any potential bacteria.

Cook at 325 degrees Fahrenheit or higher until a meat thermometer inserted in the meatiest area, typically the thigh, shows 165 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a good idea to take readings in a couple of places.

Covering the turkey with a lid or aluminum foil will help ensure consistent cooking. Take the lid or foil off toward the end of cooking to allow the skin to brown.

Pop-up thermometers that come with some turkeys are an indicator of temperature, but they’re not the true temperature of the innermost part of the turkey. These can pop up before the bird is cooked through.

If the turkey will take up the entire oven, think ahead (remember that list) about how you can use a slow cooker, a pressure cooker, a stove top or even a countertop roaster (which you can also cook the turkey in) to cook other foods.

Making stuffing? Food safety experts encourage cooks to bake the stuffing in a separate pan from the turkey, making it easier to get to the required 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you stuff the bird, stuff it loosely. Packing it tight slows down the time to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

As with any kind of meat, it’s a good idea to let the turkey “rest” for 15-20 minutes when it comes out of the oven. It helps the juices reincorporate into the meat.

After the Meal

To help prevent foodborne illness, don’t let food sit out more than two hours after it comes out of the oven or off the stove. That invites potential bacterial growth and no one wants foodborne illness after a nice holiday meal.

Remember this: cold foods should be kept cold and hot foods should be kept hot.

To help turkey meat chill faster, take the meat off the bones. Save the bones in the refrigerator or freezer to make turkey soup.

Store leftover foods in a flat, wide container (about 2 inches high) before refrigerating if possible. That also helps it chill faster, which keeps bacteria from growing.

“Remember, take time to plan out the meal, keep safe food handling tips in mind, and enjoy your time with family and friends,” Blakeslee said.

To learn more, visit, or listen to the Sound Living radio interview at


Matt Young53 Posts

Matt Young is the Brown County Extension District director, as well as an agent in the area of agriculture and natural resources.


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