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Carin Booth: Talking turkey, preparing for star of holiday feast

It is time to choose the star of your Thanksgiving show. Both the hen and tom turkey are equally tender, though the female is generally smaller.

Carin Booth
Carin Booth.

All turkeys you buy in the retail store should be inspected by the USDA or by a state agency with equivalent standards. The inspector checks the turkey and its internal organs for signs of disease. When you see the phrase “Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S Department of Agriculture,” this means the turkey has been properly labeled. Such inspection is mandatory.

A sell-by date indicates how long the turkey should be displayed in the store. The turkey should be purchased before the sell-by date expires. The “best if used by” date is only a quality measure and is not related to the safety of the food. The “use-by” date indicates the last day the turkey should be used. This is also a quality measure and not necessarily an indication of safety. 

Nutrition labeling is required of most turkey products, and safe handling instructions are required, too. Here is the nutritional value of 3 ounces of baked turkey breast with skin: 160 calories, 6 grams fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 24 grams protein. A 3-ounce serving of the same turkey without the skin is a little different: 120 calories, 1 gram fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol and 26 grams protein.

If you’ve had a turkey in the freezer since last Thanksgiving, is it safe to eat? It is recommended that a whole turkey be kept no longer than 12 months. There is no safety risk in keeping a turkey in the freezer longer; the only concern is the quality may be less desirable. Fresh whole turkeys can safely stay in the refrigerator for one to two days, or according to the date on the package. 

If you have purchased a frozen turkey, it is important to take it out of the freezer so it has time to thaw. The safest way to thaw it is to plan ahead and move it from the freezer into the refrigerator. It will take about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw in a refrigerator set to 40 degrees, the recommended temperature. 

If you forgot to plan ahead, you can thaw it in cold water. The turkey should be wrapped in leak-proof packaging because you do not want the bird to absorb water. Submerge the turkey completely in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes until it is completely thawed. Thawing will take about 30 minutes per pound, so if you have a 10-pound turkey, you are looking at about 5 hours to thaw.

The turkey should be cooked immediately after thawing. 

To stuff or not to stuff? It is best to cook the stuffing separately from the turkey. The stuffing needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 F for it to be safe. Often by the time the stuffing reaches this temperature, the turkey is overcooked and dry. If you decide to stuff the turkey, do so just before cooking, make sure the stuffing is moist and stuff the turkey loosely. Remember, a stuffed turkey takes longer to cook. 

For roasting a turkey, the oven should be set at 325 degrees or higher. The internal temperature must be at a minimum 165 F. Check the temperature at the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and thickest part of the breast. It is still best to cook the turkey to higher temperature such as 180 F to remove the pink color and the rubbery texture. 

For more information on what size turkey to buy, how to store leftovers, frying, grilling and smoking a turkey, approximate cooking times as well as other commonly asked questions, visit or call your Hall County Extension Office at 770-535-8293.  

Sources: UGA Extension Food Safety Specialist Judy A. Harrison, UGA Extension Agent, Gilmer County, Renee Dotson.

Carin Booth is the family and consumer sciences agent at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Office in Hall County. She can be reached at 770-535-8293 or 

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