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Wilburn: Freeze and thaw your turkey carefully
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Here are food safety questions that I answer frequently throughout the year, but especially close to Thanksgiving, concerning preparing turkey.

Keep these food safety guidelines in mind when handling turkey to prevent foodborne illness.

What foodborne bacteria are associated with turkey?

The foodborne bacteria that are most often associated with turkey are salmonella, campylobacter jejuni, staphylococcus aureus and listeria monocytogenes.

How long can you keep a turkey in the freezer? In the refrigerator?

It is recommended that whole turkey be kept in the freezer no longer than 12 months. While there is no safety risk in holding a turkey in the freezer for longer than 12 months, the quality of the turkey may be less than desirable. Fresh whole turkeys can safely stay in the refrigerator for one to two days, or according to the date on the manufacturer’s packaging.

How should I thaw my turkey? How long will it take?

There are three ways to safely thaw your turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave.

The most recommended way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. While thawing in the refrigerator, the turkey will not reach an internal temperature above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so harmful bacteria will not have the chance to grow. Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator requires planning. If the refrigerator temperature is set at 40 F, it will take about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw. So if you do the math, a 15-pound turkey will take about three days to thaw, and then it must be cooked within two days.

If you don’t have enough time to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, you can try to thaw it in cold water. Make sure the turkey is wrapped well in leak-proof packaging, as the flesh can absorb water and make a watery product. Submerge the turkey completely in cold water. The water should be changed every 30 minutes until the turkey is completely thawed. It should take about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thaw. Since temperature conditions are not controlled using the cold water method of thawing, the turkey should be cooked immediately after thawing. My mother can tell you from experience that if you wait until the last minute you will end up babysitting your turkey as you change the water every 30 minutes.

The third method of thawing is in the microwave. You should follow the oven manufacturer’s instructions for thawing turkey in the microwave. Always cook the turkey immediately after thawing in the microwave, as some parts of the turkey may have reached temperatures where harmful bacteria can grow.


Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension Service. Contact: 770-535-8290 or

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