This is a bit of a tricky question to answer. While you can let turkey sit out on the counter before cooking, you shouldn't leave it out for longer than two hours. And, on a warm day, the turkey shouldn't be left out for more than an hour.
When I was working as a chef, the timing was of the essence when it came to prepping and cooking poultry and meat. I had to keep careful track of when I took the meat out of the fridge, how long it was sitting on the counter, and when to preheat oven. After a while, this became second nature to me.
So, should you let turkey sit out before cooking? I will answer this question and give you tips on how to store, prep, and cook your turkey!
The short answer to this question is, no.
A lot of you may have been taught that the best way to defrost a frozen turkey is to let it sit out on the counter until it is thawed out.
Well, unfortunately, this isn't good advice at all. The thing is, raw meat can't be kept outside for longer than a certain period of time.
When you keep raw meat out for too long, it enters what is known as the danger zone. This is a range of temperatures between 40 F and 140 F. In between these temperatures, bacteria can multiply incredibly quickly.
When this happens, the risk of food poisoning goes up quite a bit.
That being said, you can let the turkey sit out for a while without the risk of food poisoning. In fact, if your turkey has been kept in the refrigerator, it is best to keep it out for a short period of time before cooking.
This way, the turkey has time to warm up a little. Then, when it is placed inside the oven, grill, or smoker, it will cook at a more even rate, producing a juicier turkey.
OK, then based on the above information you may be wondering:
When should I sit out my turkey?
Well, this does depend on the ambient room temperature. On cooler days, when the temperature is below 90 F, you can keep the turkey out for up to 2 hours. After this time is up, you have to either cook the turkey or put it back in the fridge.
On warmer days, when the temperature is 90 F and above, then you can only let the turkey sit out for an hour. After this, it is best to cook the bird.
One of the reasons that people don't follow these guidelines for turkey is that they believed that the cooking process can kill bacteria. So, they imagine that even if bacteria grow on the turkey that this will not be an issue once you start cooking turkey.
What people don't know, though, is that bacteria produce toxins. And, while bacteria can be killed by heat, the toxins are heat resistant - they can withstand the cooking process.
What's more, it is these toxins that can cause illness.
Foodborne illness is a lot more dangerous than most people realize. It is especially harmful to young children and old people as they have weaker immune systems. Due to this, there is a higher risk of dehydration and even fatalities for these individuals.
Contrary to popular belief, turkey can begin to spoil much faster than you realize. And, in the very early stages of spoilage, it can be difficult to know if the meat has actually gone bad.
Usually, the signs of spoilage include a bad or spoiled odor. The surface of the turkey will also be slimy or tacky. There may also be some discoloration or greenish parts on the turkey.
Unfortunately, these signs will show up much later. This means that you can cook and consume turkey without ever knowing that it was bad.
It is because of this that you should only leave the turkey out for the recommended amount of time. Anything longer than this and you risk the health and safety of you and others.
It is clear that you can't let turkey sit out on the counter to thaw at room temperature. So, how do you defrost the bird?
Well, the best way would be to place the turkey in a container and leave it in the refrigerator. This way, even as the turkey defrosts, it is kept at a cold temperature, reducing the bacteria growth.
As an added bonus, even once the turkey has defrosted, you can continue to store it in the refrigerator for a couple of days. So, it is an excellent method if you don't need to cook the turkey right away.
The problem with this method is that defrosting turkey in the refrigerator can be very time consuming. Depending on the size of the turkey, it can take several days until the bird is fully defrosted.
If you don't have so much time on your hands, your next best option is to use the cold water method.
For the cold water method, you have to keep the turkey in its original packaging. Then, place it in a bowl or container and fill it with cold tap water.
Let the bird sit for 30 minutes before emptying out the water in the bowl and then refilling it with fresh cold tap water. Repeat this every 3 minutes until the turkey is completely defrosted.
After letting the turkey sit out for 1 to 2 hours, depending on the room temperature, you should then cook the turkey immediately.
In fact, I would suggest warming up your oven, grill, or smoker before the time limit is up.
Place the turkey on a roasting pan. Next, insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. Make sure to keep the end of the probe at least an inch away from the bone to avoid getting a false reading.
Then, place the turkey in the oven, grill, or smoker.
The thing to remember about cooking a turkey is that white meat cooks much faster than dark meat. Due to this, you have to keep track of the temperature of the breast meat rather than the thighs or legs.
Now, according to USDA, you should cook turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 F. The problem is that if you follow this advice, then your turkey is going to end up dry and overcooked.
This is why you should take the bird off the heat when the internal temp reaches 150 F.
Don't worry, this is a safe internal temperature for your turkey. Remember that once you take the bird off the heat, the whole turkey will continue to cook anyway, with the internal temp going up by as much as 10 degrees.
So, let the turkey rest and by then it will be cooked to perfection.
Did you know that the same rules for raw and cooked turkey apply? Far too many people let their leftover turkey sit out on the counter at room temperature.
Once again, though, if the turkey is left out at room temperature for too long, bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. After this happens, it doesn't matter if you refrigerate the turkey as the damage will be done - the meat can still make you sick.
How long can you leave turkey out after the cooking process?
If the room temperature is below 90 F, then you can let it sit out for two hours. In case the room temp is above 90 F, then you can only let it sit out for about an hour.
In general, though, I would advise putting the turkey away shortly after it has cooled enough so that it is warm to the touch. This way, you can cut down on the risk of the meat spoiling.
At the same time, don't put the turkey in the fridge or freezer while it is hot. If you do this, the heat of the bird will bring down the temperature in the cold area. In doing so, you risk the other foods in the fridge or freezer spoiling too.
It is important to know how to store the turkey properly as well. If you will be reheating and using up the turkey within a couple of days, then it can be kept in the refrigerator.
Here, simply place the turkey in an airtight container and store it in the fridge. If possible, make space at the back of the fridge as this area is the coldest.
In case you want to keep the turkey fresh for longer, you will need to freeze it.
For this, you should tightly wrap the turkey in aluminum foil or plastic wrap. As an alternative, you could also keep the turkey in an airtight container or keep it in a Ziploc bag.
If you do decide to keep it in a freezer bag, make sure to squeeze the air out of the bag before sealing it. This will help to prevent freezer burn.
Then, write the date of freezing on the packaging and place it in the back of the freezer until it is needed.
Now you know exactly how long you can let turkey sit out without worrying about the meat spoiling. As long as you follow the advice I have mentioned here, you can guarantee that you and your family can stay safe!