As the winter holidays approach, families should know the proper way to roast a turkey. Virginia Cooperative Extension offers advice on safely preparing this holiday meal.

Safely thawing a frozen turkey is the first step. “One of the biggest food-safety recommendations when preparing a turkey is to defrost at cool temperatures,” said Renee Boyer, consumer food-safety specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension and an assistant professor of food science and technology at Virginia Tech.

Place the turkey in a shallow pan with the original wrapper, sliding the bird into the refrigerator and leaving it there until completely thawed. This keeps it below 40 degrees F. Defrosting will take approximately 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey.

After the turkey thaws, remove the giblets and neck. These are typically in one or two bags inside the turkey. Check both cavities. A turkey should be cooked immediately after thawing; otherwise, keep the thawed bird in the refrigerator for no longer than two days. Clean any areas you or the raw turkey touch such as counter surfaces, utensils, or other dishes to avoid cross-contamination with other foods.

Sit the bird on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan about 2 inches deep. The breast side should face up. Position the wings underneath the shoulders of the bird. If desired, add a half-cup of water to the bottom of the pan.

Directions on the back of the turkey packaging will often instruct you to heat the bird in the oven at 325 degrees F until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F on a meat thermometer. Be sure to stick the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh near the center of the thigh but not touching the bone. Use a meat thermometer even if your turkey has a “pop-up” temperature indicator.

“If you are cooking stuffing inside the turkey, ensure that its temperature also reaches 165 degrees F to destroy any microorganisms that might cause food-borne illnesses,” Boyer warned. “Often it is difficult to heat the stuffing to the proper temperature while inside the turkey cavity, so it is better to cook stuffing in a separate dish.”

To prevent your turkey from over-browning or becoming too dry, cover the bird with an aluminum foil “tent” while cooking, uncovering it at the beginning or end of the cooking time to brown. Let the roasted turkey sit for at least 20 minutes before carving.

Virginia Cooperative Extension brings the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, to the people of the commonwealth. Through a system of on-campus specialists and locally based agents, it delivers education in the areas of agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, community viability, and 4-H youth development. With a network of faculty at two universities, 107 county and city offices, 13 agricultural research and extension centers, and six 4-H educational centers, Virginia Cooperative Extension provides solutions to the problems facing Virginians today.