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How to Thaw and Cook Turkey and Ham

Turkey cooking in the oven

Are you hosting a holiday party this year? As you think about your dinner menu, make sure you plan ahead for how you will thaw and cook the meat.

When food is thawed incorrectly, foodborne germs can multiply to dangerous levels and cause people to get sick — and you don’t want to invite foodborne illness to the party.

Two traditional kinds of meat served at this time of year are turkey and ham. Read on to learn how you can prepare these dishes safely for your friends and family members.

How to cook a frozen turkey

Would it surprise you to learn that how you thaw a frozen turkey is just as important in preventing foodborne illness as how long you cook it? It’s true. Cooking a frozen turkey begins with thawing it.

Letting the turkey fully thaw before cooking it will help it cook evenly. If the inside of the turkey isn’t fully thawed before cooking, it can cook more slowly than the outside. Nobody wants to bite into a piece of turkey with a crisp, golden outside only to find that it’s undercooked on the inside.

In addition, how you thaw your turkey matters. Thawing food through an improper method can allow germs to multiply so many times even cooking won’t make it safe to eat.

How to thaw a turkey

In general, there are four ways you can thaw food safely. However, only two of them are practical for thawing something as large as a turkey.

  1. Thaw it in the fridge. The easiest and safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is to store it in the refrigerator for a few days before you cook it. How long you need to leave it in the fridge depends on the size of the turkey. Thawing takes about one day per 5 pounds of meat, so if you have a 15-pound turkey, plan on refrigerating it for at least three days.
  2. Thaw it in cool water. This method is faster than thawing turkey in the fridge, but also requires more effort — not to mention water. If you forget to move your turkey to the fridge in time, you can thaw it in the sink in cool water. Fill the sink with enough water to submerge the turkey, with its packaging still on. Leaving it in its packaging will help prevent the water from carrying germs from the turkey to your sink and kitchen. The water should be no hotter than 70°F (21°C). Thawing in water takes about 2.5 hours per 5 pounds of meat, and you must change the water every 30 minutes.

If your turkey is small enough, you may also be able to thaw it in your microwave. If you use this method, remove the turkey from its packaging and put it in a microwave-safe dish. Your instruction manual should tell you the microwave’s recommended capacity. It should also give instructions for where to set the power level and how long it will take to thaw each pound of turkey.

If you thaw your turkey in the microwave, make sure you start cooking it immediately afterward!

How to stuff a turkey

If you enjoy stuffed turkey, the USDA recommends either buying your turkey pre-stuffed by a facility under USDA inspection (look for the official USDA inspected mark) or stuffing the turkey yourself. Do not buy a pre-stuffed turkey from a grocery store or restaurant.

If your turkey was stuffed in a USDA-inspected facility, simply follow the instructions on the package to cook it safely.

If you’re planning to make your own stuffing and put it in the turkey on your own, there are some important guidelines you should follow.

  • Only stuff turkeys that will be baked. Don’t stuff your turkey if it will be grilled, smoked, fried, or microwaved.
  • Pre-cook raw ingredients. If you put raw meat, poultry, or seafood in your stuffing, make sure you cook those ingredients before putting them into your turkey. Pre-cooking the raw ingredients will reduce your risk of foodborne illness.
  • Don’t overstuff your turkey, and don’t mix dry and wet ingredients until you’re ready to stuff the turkey. Plan on about 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of meat. In addition, keep dry and wet ingredients separate until you’re ready to stuff the turkey cavity. Don’t even wait for cooked ingredients to cool — mix them together and stuff your turkey right then and there. This will help keep the stuffing moist, which is good because heat destroys bacteria more quickly in a moist environment.
  • Cook the stuffed turkey immediately. As soon as you finish stuffing your turkey, put it in the oven. The oven temperature should be no lower than 325°F (163°C).
  • After the turkey is cooked, let it rest. We’ll cover cooking more in depth in the next section. For now, suffice it to say that your turkey and the stuffing should reach an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). After it’s cooked, let it rest for 20 minutes before you remove the stuffing and carve the meat.

How long to cook turkey

Cooking turkey is less a question of time and more a question of temperature. The FDA has recommended cooking temperatures for a variety of different foods. When you follow them, the heat will reduce foodborne germs to safe levels.

The recommended cooking temperature for turkey is 165°F (74°C). In this context, “cooking temperature” refers to the turkey’s internal temperature, not its surface temperature. The easiest way to check the internal temp of your turkey is to use a food thermometer.

To check the temperature, place the thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh and wing of the turkey. If your turkey is stuffed, you should also stick the thermometer into the stuffing and check its temperature. Stuffing should also reach 165°F (74°C).

Once the turkey has reached a safe temperature, let it rest for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.

How to cook ham

Just like turkey, the first step to cooking raw ham safely is to make sure it’s properly thawed.

How long does it take to thaw a ham?

You can use the same three thawing methods mentioned above to thaw frozen ham. Hams are generally smaller than turkeys, which makes the microwave an even more viable option.

  1. If you choose to thaw your ham in the refrigerator, plan on giving it one day per 5 pounds of meat.
  2. If you thaw your ham in cold water, it will take about 2.5 hours per 5 pounds of meat. Follow the instructions outlined in the turkey section above to thaw it safely. Remember, you must change the water every 30 minutes. Don’t allow the water temperature to exceed 70°F (21°C).
  3. To thaw your ham in the microwave, remove it from its packaging and put it in a microwave-safe dish. Follow the instructions in your owner’s manual to defrost it. After thawing in the microwave, make sure you start cooking it immediately afterward!

How long to cook ham

If you’re cooking raw ham, it needs to reach an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C). Just like with turkey, use a food thermometer to check if it’s done. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the ham, but not right next to the bone.

Depending on the cut of ham, it could take up to 35-40 minutes per pound of meat for it to fully cook. After it’s done cooking, allow it to rest for three minutes before you slice it.

If you bought a precooked ham from the grocery store, whether you cook it or not is a matter of personal preference. Retail-packaged precooked ham can be eaten cold, straight out of the packaging. If you choose to reheat it, the USDA recommends heating it to an internal temperature of 140°F (60°C).

If your ham was packaged anywhere other than a commercial manufacturer, or if you’re reheating leftover ham, the USDA recommends heating it to 165°F (74°C).

Additional resources

For more food safety tips, check out our Food Safety for Home Kitchens course. We’re currently offering it for free!

You can also test your food safety knowledge by taking our “What’s Your Holiday Host Rating?” quiz.

Finally, as you finalize your holiday plans this year, make sure you’re following your local COVID-19 safety guidelines.

As you follow the food safety principles taught in this article and local COVID-19 guidelines, you will help keep yourself and your family safe from illness this holiday season.

— Jessica Pettit

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