How to Cook Turkey Safely at Thanksgiving

If turkey is on your holiday menu, be sure to follow these food safety tips to prevent food poisoning.
How to Cook Turkey Safely at Thanksgiving
October 1, 2019

For many Canadians, Thanksgiving means a big turkey with all the trimmings — but turkey, stuffing and other traditional dishes can harbour dangerous bacteria and other disease-causing germs.

If you're preparing a Thanksgiving feast in a restaurant for guests, in a facility for clients under your care, or for friends and family at home, it’s important to follow food safety rules to prevent food poisoning and other health risks.

Restaurants, food retailers and fast-food chains must take special care to prevent food poisoning. Unsafe food handling practices, poor hygiene or hasty, ineffective cleaning and sanitizing create ample opportunities for disease-causing germs to contaminate food. The consequences of causing a food-borne illness outbreak can be dire, so it’s important to invest in food safety training and education.

How to prepare a safe Thanksgiving turkey

If a turkey is on your holiday menu, follow the food safety rules below to ensure a safe holiday for everyone at your table.


There are three ways to thaw a frozen turkey:

  1. Inside the refrigerator (safest method). Allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey (a 10-pound bird will take about two days to thaw completely). Keep the turkey in its original wrapping while it's thawing and place breast-side-up in a baking pan to prevent drips.
  2. In the microwave. Follow the microwave manufacturer’s instructions if you choose to use this method and make sure to cook the turkey immediately afterwards.
  3. In the sink under cold, running water (not recommended). Clean and sanitize the sink first, then completely submerge the frozen turkey in leak-proof, waterproof packaging under cold, running water.

It’s important to keep turkey out of the Temperature Danger Zone (between 4°C and 60°C / 40°F and 140°F) throughout the thawing process to prevent bacterial growth that can lead to food poisoning.

Never thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature on a prep counter or in hot water in the sink.


Raw poultry contaminates anything it touches — this is called cross-contamination. To prevent cross-contamination, do the following:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw turkey.
  • Clean and sanitize equipment, contact surfaces and utensils after they come into contact with raw turkey.
  • Use two cutting boards, one for raw turkey and one for fresh produce and cooked / ready-to-eat foods.
  • Never place cooked food back on the same plate or cutting board that previously held raw food, unless it has been cleaned and sanitized since.

Do not rinse raw turkey in the sink. Rinsing raw poultry, especially a giant Thanksgiving turkey, can spray raw poultry juices in all directions; harmful bacteria like Campylobacter and Salmonella can survive on contact surfaces for between four and 32 hours.


To prevent food poisoning, the turkey must be cooked to 82°C / 180°F or above. Be sure to do the following:

  1. Preheat the oven to at least 165°C / 325°F.
  2. Place the completely thawed turkey breast-side-up in a shallow roasting pan.
  3. Cook for between three and six hours.*
  4. Check to make sure the internal temperature has reached 82°C / 180°F or above.

The only way to make sure the turkey has reached the required temperature is by checking it with a food thermometer.

Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, away from bone, fat or gristle and check the temperature under the drumstick (this area takes the longest to heat up).

Return the turkey to the oven if the required temperature has not been reached, and be sure to clean and sanitize the thermometer in between temperature checks.

*Cooking times will vary between three and six hours, depending on the weight of the turkey and whether or not it is stuffed.

How to prepare stuffing safely

If stuffing is cooked inside the turkey, it poses a food safety risk because:

  • it can take longer to reach the required temperature for safety (74°C / 165°F or above)
  • it absorbs raw meat juices (making it a high-risk food) but it is often treated as a low-risk food
  • it acts as an insulator, which can prevent meat from reaching the required temperature (82°C / 180°F or above)

To ensure safety, cook stuffing separately in the oven in its own dish, or on the stovetop, to a minimum internal temperature of 74°C / 165°F (use a food thermometer to check). If preparing one or two days in advance of service, be sure to transfer stuffing to shallow, food-grade containers and refrigerate promptly. When it's time for service, reheat stuffing to 74°C  / 165°F or above.

Tips for a safe thanksgiving buffet

If food will be served buffet-style, be sure to follow these buffet safety rules:

  • Use hot holding equipment to keep hot foods hot (60°C / 140°F or above).
  • Keep cold foods cold (4°C / 40°F or below) by keeping them in chilled display cases or by putting them on serving trays on top of crushed ice. If food remains at room temperature for more than two hours, throw it away.
  • Never add fresh food to old food, and never reuse food that has been sitting on a buffet table, even if it’s only been there for a short time.
  • Provide serving spoons and tongs for every dish served. Even finger foods like cut vegetables, bread rolls and cheese trays should have serving tools to prevent cross-contamination between guests.

High-risk groups and food safety

Community organizations — such as aged care homes, hospitals and daycares — must follow food safety protocols and procedures to the letter as they generally serve high-risk populations. High-risk groups are at greater risk of serious health effects from food-borne diseases, including death.

To protect the most vulnerable, the Canadian government classifies many community organizations that serve food to high-risk groups as “food premises” under the law, which means they are subject to the same regulations and controls, including mandatory food safety training and certification.

Find out more about high-risk customer groups and the dangers of food poisoning.