Whether you are planning your first holiday dinner or you're a turkey-cooking veteran, food safety precautions should be paramount when preparing your turkey feast.

If you are preparing your first Thanksgiving dinner, it can be a big challenge, and there aren't many dinners that come with such high expectations. However, with careful planning, the task of cooking your first turkey will be a piece of cake-or pie.

Planning and preparation are keys to pulling off this special meal, especially when having to safely thaw a frozen turkey. Although a turkey is often much larger than other frozen items and will require a longer time to thaw, handling it for safe thawing is the same as for any other frozen food. Safe thawing means preventing conditions where dangerous bacteria can thrive.

"The best option for thawing a turkey is to do so in a refrigerator, because it has a controlled temperature so you don't promote the growth of bacteria," recommends Audrey McElroy, Virginia Cooperative Extension broiler specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and transfer it to a tray. The tray will prevent drippings from contaminating the other food. Place the turkey on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator where the temperature should be below 40 F. Be sure not to remove the turkey until it has completely defrosted. Approximately 24 hours is needed for each five pounds of turkey so allow about 48 hours or two days to thaw a 10-pound turkey.

If you run out of time, another defrosting method may be used to fit your schedule; however, McElroy points out that the refrigerator method is preferred. Again, leave the turkey in its original wrapper and cover it with cold water. Replace the water every 30 minutes in order to keep the turkey cold. This method will take about 30 minutes per pound of turkey; thus, five hours will be needed for a 10-pound turkey.

Remember to remove the giblets and neck. They are usually in one or two bags inside the turkey - check both cavities. Allow the turkey to thaw before trying to remove the giblets.

Regardless of the defrosting method used, the turkey should be cooked immediately after the thawing is done. If you are unable to cook the turkey right away, you can keep the thawed bird in the refrigerator but for no longer than two days.

To roast a turkey, place it on a flat wire rack, breast-side up, in a shallow roasting pan about 2 inches deep. Position the wings underneath the shoulders of the bird, and a half-cup of water may be added to the bottom of the pan.

Place the turkey in a 325 F oven and cook until the internal temperature of the bird registers 180 F to 185 F on a meat thermometer. To check the temperature, place the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh so it is in the center of the thigh, but not touching the bone. The only way to judge if a turkey is completely cooked and safe to serve is by its internal temperature. McElroy advises checking the temperature of the stuffing as well, if the bird is stuffed. The temperature of the stuffing should be approximately 160 F to 165 F.

If you are roasting a turkey breast only, place the meat thermometer inside the thickest part of the breast until internal temperature reach 170 F. In both cases, be sure to keep the oven at or above 325 F because low temperatures create conditions in which bacteria may develop.

Placing aluminum foil loosely over the turkey will prevent it from over browning or drying out and help reduce oven mess. To allow the turkey to brown, uncover it either at the beginning or end of the cooking time. Either method is acceptable.

If giblets were accidentally left inside the turkey during roasting, they are probably safe to eat unless the packaging containing the giblets has changed or melted in any way during cooking. If the packaging has changed or melted inside the turkey, dispose of the turkey because harmful chemicals from the packaging may have penetrated the surrounding meat.

After roasting is done, let the turkey stand for at least 20 minutes before carving.

For more information, contact your local Extension agent or Mary Ann Johnson, (540) 231-6975, jnayram@vt.edu.