University of Illinois Extension

Turkey FAQs

Is it dangerous to roast a turkey in a disposable aluminum pan?

The danger is in getting burned while removing a flimsy disposable aluminum pan full of hot turkey from a hot oven. Unless handled carefully, it could buckle under the weight of the turkey, sending everything smashing to the floor. Consider investing in a sturdy stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or enameled steel (speckled kind from supermarkets) roasting pan which, can be used over and over again. Figure out the size right for your oven, generally 16x13 inches. There needs to be 2 to 3 inches of air space all around—a little more for grabbing handles easily. If you select a roasting pan with handles, make sure the openings are large enough to accommodate hands covered with potholders or oven mitts.

How often should the turkey be basted?

The purpose of basting is to produce a golden brown, crispy skin. Basting does not produce moisture or otherwise improve the flavor of the interior turkey. You also lose oven heat by opening the door too often to baste. Heat loss will only increase roasting time so keep the basting to a minimum, during the last hour of cooking.

How long should turkey be marinated?

The verb "marinate" means to steep in a marinade. A marinade is a savory blend of oil, an acid (vinegar, lemon juice, wine, etc.), and spices. As the turkey stands in the mixture, the acid and the oil impart the savory flavor of the spices into the meat. The acid also has a tenderizing action. Too much acid in the marinade can have the opposite effect, causing the meat to be stringy and tough. Use a recipe. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, turkey can be safely marinated for up to two days in the refrigerator before cooking. Of course, during the marinating process the bird should be turned so that all parts benefit from the seasoning.

Is a fresh turkey juicier than a frozen one?

The choice is based on personal preference. With today's freezing methods, there is no significant difference in quality between a fresh turkey and a frozen one. The moisture loss is minimal. If you like to shop well in advance of cooking the meal, a frozen turkey is your best bet. Make sure the turkey is solidly frozen. By reading the label carefully, you can be sure of getting exactly what you want— stuffed, unstuffed, basted, unbasted, or smoked.

Buy a fresh turkey one to two days before you will be cooking it. Some labels can be helpful by including a sell by date. The sell by date is the last date the store can sell the turkey as fresh. The turkey will maintain optimal quality and safety one to two days after that date. Avoid selecting a turkey that is stacked above the top of the store's refrigerator case. Remember, once you get your fresh turkey home, refrigerate it right away, and use it within one to two days. Calling the supermarket in advance to reserve your fresh turkey is a good idea.

Pink Turkey Meat

Why is turkey meat (and chicken) sometimes pink close to the bone, even when it is fully cooked to 165 degrees or higher?

Very young turkeys (and chickens) have immature porous bones, which may allow red pigmentation (hemoglobin) to leach out into the meat. Smoking and grilling can also cause this reaction. If the bird is fully cooked (165 degrees and juices run clear) and meat around the bones is still pink, it is not unsafe to eat.

A whole turkey and turkey parts are safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. The turkey is safe to eat at this point but some consumers, for reasons of personal preference, may choose to cook turkey to higher temperatures.

Does stuffing cooked inside the turkey taste better?

No, not necessarily. Stuffing cooked separately can be just as delicious. And it is safer because if you stuff the turkey there is a risk that the internal temperature of the stuffing will not reach a safe bacteria-killing temperature which is 165 degrees or higher. The unstuffed turkey will also cook faster reducing the risk of dried-out, overcooked meat. Using the pan drippings in the stuffing (dressing) will enhance the flavor too.

How long can I keep leftover turkey in the freezer?

Leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy should be used within one month after freezing. Use freezer wrap or freezer containers. Proper packaging is important to the success of frozen leftovers. Otherwise, circulating air in the freezer will create freezer burn – white dried-out patches on the surface of food that make it tough and tasteless. Use heavy-duty aluminum foil, freezer paper, or zip-closure freezer bags for best results. Do not leave air space. Squeeze excess air from freezer bags and fill rigid freezer containers to the top with dry foods. Leave one-inch headspace in containers with liquid and 1/2-inch in containers with semisolids. Don't forget to label and date packages and use the oldest ones first.

Are turkeys injected with growth hormones?

Turkeys grown for consumption in the U.S. are not given any steroids or hormones during the growing process. No hormones have been approved for use in turkeys. Genetic improvements as a result of breeding, better feed formulation and modern management practices are responsible for the larger turkeys produced today. Turkeys reach maturity between four and nine months of age. Older turkeys are tough, useless and not on the market for consumption.

Does turkey make you sleepy?

Several years ago the media released information concerning a compound in turkey breast that causes sleepiness. This compound is the amino acid tryptophan, which is an important building block of protein. Tryptophan also acts as a precursor to niacin (a B vitamin) and serotonin. Serotonin is a compound formed in the brain that plays a role in sleep production and relaxation. Thus, the media concluded, an increase in dietary tryptophan might increase sleepiness.

But the amount of serotonin produced from the tryptophan consumed in an average three to four ounce serving of turkey would not be large enough to cause a significant increase in sleepiness. Rather than the turkey, that lazy feeling is probably due to the tremendous amount of calories from carbohydrates (starch and sugar) found in the traditional holiday meal.

Indulging in a full-fledged Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings and Herculean-sized portions may also contribute to sleepiness. Simply put, overeating requires the output of a lot of energy. Then the digestion of all that food calls for the use of even more energy. Those who exercise dietary prudence will not experience extreme fatigue at meals-end. As for the rest of you, take a nap and please stop blaming the turkey.

Is stuffing the turkey the night before a good time saver?

No! It is a dangerous practice. Why? Harmful bacteria can multiply in the stuffing and cause food poisoning even when the stuffed bird is refrigerated. The cavity of the bird actually insulates the stuffing from the cold temperatures of the refrigerator and acts as an incubator for the harmful bacteria.

The ingredients for the stuffing can be prepared in advance and refrigerated separately. To save time, chop vegetables such as onions and celery the night before. The safest method is to mix the ingredients and lightly stuff the turkey just prior to popping it into a preheated oven.

Once turkey is safely cooked, does it matter how long you leave it out?

Definitely yes! According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, each year the number of reported cases of foodborne illness (food poisoning) increases with the holiday season. Many people self-diagnose their illness as stomach flu and simply wait until it passes (no pun intended) and without seeing a doctor. Although foodborne illness may produce flu-like symptoms, influenza or flu is an upper respiratory illness not a stomach and lower GI illness.

It is not a good idea to allow leftovers to set out for more than two hours. They will be safer and taste better if you refrigerate them as soon as possible and reheat thoroughly to 165 degrees or until steaming hot. Remove stuffing from the cavity, cut turkey off the bone and refrigerate or freeze all leftovers for later use.

The confusing part about the bacteria that cause foodborne illness is that they do not cause food spoilage. Food that looks and smells perfectly fine can cause illness if it has been mishandled. The other misconception is that you may not get sick until days later, after the bacteria have had a chance to multiply and it reeks havoc on your system. By then most people are not likely to associate feeling queasy with eating the holiday leftovers. And there is another point; everyone who ate the contaminated food may not get sick. Young children, senior citizens, and people who already have a chronic illness are most vulnerable. So keep it safe and refrigerate.

Is a tom turkey tougher than a hen?

No. Most experts agree that a hen turkey is better than a tom, but it is probably a matter of personal preference. Hens are generally smaller than tom turkeys of the same age. Hens weigh less than sixteen pounds while toms always weigh over sixteen pounds. Tom turkeys have larger bones and less edible portions, which may be reason for hens as preference. However, age not gender is the determining factor for tenderness and all commercial turkeys are young and tender.

I understand that cooking a turkey at a very low oven temperature (below 325ºF) is unsafe, but is there any danger in cooking turkey at a very higher temperature— above 350ºF?

No, there is no danger as long as the turkey is cooked to an internal temperature of 165ºF or higher. Check for doneness by inserting a food thermometer in the innermost thickest part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast. The temperature should measure 165ºF or higher in each part of the turkey. There are many high-roast turkey cooking methods outlined in various cookbooks. With this method, the turkey is cooked at a very high 500-450ºF. High-roasting is usually done with small turkeys—8 to 12 lbs. High roast turkeys do yield crisp breast skin, but the breast meat tends to become a bit dry during roasting if you are not careful in checking the temperature of the bird. There is usually a great deal of smoke produced from the burning drippings as well. Smoke detectors may go off!

Is it all right to use a pre-based turkey for brining?

No, a pre-basted or self-basted turkey is injected with broth, spices, seasoning, flavor enhancers, and it may contain some salt. The maximum added weight of approximately 3 percent solution before processing is included in the net weight on the label. The label must also include a statement identifying the name of all the ingredients in the solution. Using a pre-basted turkey could result in too much salt. If the turkey has absorbed too much salt— the salt will draw moisture out of the flesh defeating the whole purpose of brining and/or pre-basting. For brining, start with a fresh turkey or a completely thawed turkey that is not basted or self-basted.

My giblet gravy is always thick, white, and lumpy. What am I doing wrong?

First, find a reliable recipe, read it through, and then follow it to the letter. Giblet gravy is generally thickened with flour by making a roux (flour browned in oil). There are three classic roux—white, blond, and brown. The color of the finished rouge will determine the color of the gravy. Cook the flour in oil, butter or pan drippings. Cook the roux long enough for the color to deepen a little darker than the desired color of the gravy. Darker roux produces deeper, richer flavor. Gravy also continues to thicken as it cools, so make it a little on the thin side (by adding a bit more broth or water) and it should cool to correct consistency.

As for the lumps, the rouge must be stirred constantly during browning. If the ratio of flour to oil is too great, lumps may develop. If this happens, add a little more oil and stir, stir, stir. Don't rush the browning of the roux; it may take 15 to 20 minutes to come to the color you want to achieve. Practice during the off-season so your holiday giblet gravy will be perfect. You can always strain the gravy through a sieve to get rid of the lumps too.

Prepared by: Drusilla Banks, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness

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