5 Common Thanksgiving Food Safety Questions Answered

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, internet searches for thawing and cooking instructions, tips, and safety skyrocket. We’ve rounded up five of the most popular search queries related to Thanksgiving food safety to help you get all the answers you need in one handy place.

1. Should I wash the turkey before cooking it?

No – the USDA does not recommend washing a turkey or other poultry before cooking it. Although an estimated 68% of the public says they do wash their turkey first, this can actually cause bacteria to spread. The best way to kill off bacteria is to cook your turkey to the proper temperature. 

2. Can I thaw a turkey on the counter overnight?

No! Thawing your turkey on the countertop allows it to dip into dangerous temperatures for too long. There are three safe ways to defrost your turkey: in the fridge, using cold water, and in the microwave.

If planning to thaw your turkey in the fridge, you might need to plan a few days ahead of time, depending on the size of the bird. According to StateFoodSafety, this is how long it will take you to defrost a turkey in your fridge, according to its size:

  • 5 pounds: 1 days
  • 10 pounds: 2 days
  • 15 pounds: 3 days
  • 20 pounds: 4 days

If you need to thaw your turkey in a hurry, you can try the cold water or microwave method. If submerging the wrapped turkey in cold water to thaw, make sure you change out the water at least every 30 minutes to avoid bacteria buildup. 

3. What temperature does turkey need to be cooked to?

Turkey should be cooked at a temperature of at least 325º F. Before taking it out of the oven, use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature, which should reach 165º F. 

And by the way, if you’re one for a stuffed bird, you might want to consider cooking your stuffing separately, rather than inside the turkey. The stuffing also needs to reach 165º F, and this can take longer inside the bird. But this extra cooking time might cause your turkey to become dry.

4. How long can leftovers sit out?

Don’t leave Thanksgiving food sit out for longer than two hours. Hot foods should be kept at 135º F or higher, and cold foods should never exceed 40º F. 

Don’t forget that this also includes any pies that contain milk or egg ingredients, like pumpkin, lemon meringue, and custard pies. Store these leftovers in the fridge and not on the kitchen counter.

5. Should I let leftovers cool before putting them in the fridge? 

No. It’s best to put leftovers in the fridge sooner than later, since you don’t want them to reach unsafe temperatures when left out. When you are putting away hot food, a good tip is to use a shallow dish instead of a deep dish. This will help the food to cool down faster and more evenly, helping your fridge to stay at its set temperature more easily.

After about three to four days in the fridge, it’s probably time to throw uneaten leftovers out to avoid getting sick days after Turkey Day.