How to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving without killing your guests

26 Nov 2015

This Thanksgiving Day, as the sun rises across America, men and women will be gearing up for the business of the day. But for first timers and experienced hands alike, there’s one consistent and pervasive worry – how to cook a turkey without poisoning any of the guests.

Conventional wisdom, in my household at least – thanks, Mom, for explaining it to me over the phone so I could seem knowledgeable – dictates that an average-sized turkey should start the cooking process at room temperature. It should then be cooked at 160-170°C (that’s 320-340°F for our American readers) for an hour, and at 160°C for the remainder.

It should get 15 minutes per lb, and the weight of the stuffing should be included when making calculations. It should be given an extra 15 minutes at the end, or an extra 30 if covered in foil during the cooking process.

The turkey is cooked when juices run clear and a meat thermometer reads 75°C (170°F) when inserted into the bird’s breast.


Sadly, conventional wisdom and real life rarely go hand-in-hand, as calls to the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline and the Butterball hotline can attest.

I’ve collated some of the best calls they’ve received over the years. A How Not To guide, if you will…

DO NOT use your washing machine to brine your turkey – it can’t end well

Surprisingly, this one cropped up on both the Butterball and the USDA lists, indicating that multiple people had the same stupid idea, or that one person wasn’t satisfied with the first opinion.

According to the USDA, a caller didn’t have a container large enough for brining, so decided to use his washing machine instead. Forgetting to tell his roommate where their turkey was hiding out was a mistake, it turns out, as the roommate threw a load of laundry, with detergent and bleach, into the mix.

Moral of the story? Bleach and detergent do not improve the brining process, and your guests will not find it charming when a sock comes out with the stuffing.

How to cook a turkey: washing machine

Image via Stux/Pixabay

DO NOT eat turkey that Sunset Boulevard-ed in your pool – it is not now pre-brined

The USDA once got a call from a couple who had found a wild turkey floating dead in their swimming pool.

Fairly unsurprisingly, the USDA quickly told the couple not to serve the floater to their guests, as it was not prepared correctly and promptly upon its death.

Also, because eww.

How to cook a turkey: Sunset Boulevard homage, American Dad

DO NOT re-enact Planes, Trains and Automobiles with your turkey – it’s beyond road trips now

We all love a holiday bargain. This does not extend to meat products.

A woman who spotted a turkey on sale when she was on holiday decided to bring it home in her carry-on, which was already a horrendous idea. When her flight got delayed, she decided to keep the turkey fresh by storing it over night in a bathtub full of ice.

A motel bathtub. I can practically taste the bacteria.

Transporting fresh meat without adequate refrigeration also puts it in what the USDA calls the danger zone – outside of recommended temperatures – making it unsafe to eat.

How to cook a turkey: airplane

Image via PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

DO NOT confuse your turkey with a turkey pan – it doesn’t need dish soap

It’s perfectly normal to want to give your turkey a quick rinse. It never comes back from the butchers quite clean enough, and there are gizzards and innards that need to be removed before you can cook it.

However, it’s possible to take this too far. There is no need, for instance, to do more than a quick scrub and a pat down with kitchen towel. There is absolutely zero need to bring washing-up liquid into the mix.

It will do nothing for the taste, and the suds – while festive – may prove distracting to guests.

How to cook a turkey: turkey in sink

Image via FortGirl/Flickr

DO NOT multitask – it may save time, but it won’t save Thanksgiving

While we’re at it, a bubble bath is probably entirely over the top.

The Butterball hotline once received a call from a woman wondering if it was okay to wash the turkey at the same time as she washed her kids. In the same bath. At the exact. Same. Time.

The effect of Johnson’s No Tears shampoo may be lessened by the childhood trauma of a turkey quietly simmering at the other end of the tub.

How to cook a turkey: bathtub

Image via QuinntheIslander/Pixabay

DO NOT try to be clever with turkey storage – it will backfire

Another Butterball one here.

Turkeys are cumbersome and awkward to store. We all know that. In my family, we take advantage of cold weather and a dry garden shed to store the turkey at refrigerator temperatures without needing the refrigerator space.

A woman in America took that a step further, leaving her turkey outside in the elements over night.

That was all well and good until it snowed. Not a problem, you say? That’s just better for keeping the turkey cool, you say? You’re not wrong. The problems arose when the woman realised she had no idea which particular snowdrift her Thanksgiving dinner was chilling under.

How to cook a turkey: confused woman standing in snow

Image via Shutterstock

DO NOT try to pamper your turkey – it’s too late, it’s already dead

Freezing your turkey just makes sense if you’re buying in advance. It’s the best way to keep your bird fresh until it’s ready to cook.

It does create its own problems though. Mostly, how the hell does one defrost a turkey quickly?

One Butterball caller had a unique idea – take it to the sauna.

I now have a magnificent image in my head of a turkey swaddled in a fluffy bathrobe, with a towel precariously balanced on its crown.

What I do not have is any inclination to eat a turkey that’s been in the sauna. It may be more relaxed, but it’s definitely not more edible.

How to cook a turkey: towel turkey

Image via nathanmac87/Flickr

DO NOT give your turkey a swirly – it’s bullying, and bullying is wrong. And also unhygienic.

This one almost defies belief.

Another person who was seemingly incapable of thinking of a safer way to defrost their dinner decided that the best way to get it thawed quickly was to dunk it in the toilet and flush. And flush. And flush.

While the logic is sound, the execution is vomit-inducing.

I think I may never look at a roast bird in the same way.

How to cook a turkey: toilet

Image via Shutterstock

DO NOT use a vintage turkey. Really. Don’t.

We kind of feel like this one should go without saying, but do try to make sure that your Thanksgiving bird is from this millennium.

One caller to the Butterball hotline explained to the staffer that he had just found a turkey in his dad’s freezer – a turkey from 1969. And he wanted to know the best way to cook it up.

I don’t even have a clever rejoinder for this one. I’m just sitting here in stunned silence.

How to cook a turkey: vintage turkey

Image via Jamie/Flickr

And so, as Jeremy Clarkson would say, with that bombshell…

Enjoy turkey day, Americans! And eat safe.

Gigglebit is’s daily dose of the funny and fantastic in science and tech, to help start your day on a lighter note.

Main image via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic