Overcooked turkey is a common Thanksgiving pitfall, but undercooked turkey may be an even bigger horror show. Luckily, you can fix it fairly quickly.
How to salvage an undercooked Thanksgiving turkey: In short
Don’t panic! The perfect bird isn’t out of your reach just yet.
- Carve off the legs and breasts, keeping them as intact as you can.
- Place them on a baking sheet and put them in a preheated oven at around 375ºF (190°C).
- Check your turkey chunks every 15 minutes with a meat thermometer until they hit an internal temp of 165ºF (74°C).
- Slice up the turkey, and platter it.
The key is not to put the entire bird back in the oven. But that’s not all there is to it. We break down the ins and outs of turkey safety if you miss the mark on your first attempt.
If you carve into your Thanksgiving turkey and discover that the meat is still raw, don’t put the whole thing back in the oven, because it could take a long time to finish cooking. The sides will turn ice cold and your guests will mutiny (or at least finish all the wine before dinner’s ready).
Instead, keep carving:
- Slice off the legs and the whole breasts.
- Place them on a baking sheet, and pop it into an oven you’ve preheated at 375ºF (190°C).
- Check the turkey every 15 minutes until the pieces reach an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) and the juices run clear.
- Then you can slice the meat, pile it on a platter, and bring it to your grateful guests.
So you got a little distracted by the Macy’s Day Parade, and your turkey’s still looking a little too… alive. What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, food poisoning, for a start. In 2019. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sourced a Salmonella outbreak back to raw turkey products. And not only this, but some of these Salmonella strains were also resistant to antibiotics.
Undercooking turkey leaves the door wide open for Salmonella and other pathogens like Campylobacter and Clostridium perfringens. This can lead to the following food poisoning symptoms in you and your guests:
- stomach upset and cramps
- runny poops
- a fever
So unless you want yours to go down in family lore as the Thanksgiving where everyone puked and pooped their pants, you’ll want to avoid undercooking that bad boy at all costs.
What’s the right internal temperature for turkey?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (who happened to know their turkeys pretty well) recommends cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165ºF (74°C).
This means that any nasty onboard pathogens waiting to mess with your digestive system won’t be able to survive the cook. Sad for bacteria, great for you and the people around your Thanksgiving table.
Check that the temperature has reached 165ºF (74°C) in different parts of the bird, including:
- the thickest section of breast
- the part of the thigh closest to the center of the bird
- the part of the wing closest to the center
- the center of any stuffing you’ve used
What about the oven temperature for turkey?
The USDA recommends that you should *absolutely never* cook poultry at an oven temp lower than 325ºF (163°C). As quick as possible, the bird needs to move past the “danger zone” of 40 to 140ºF (4 to 60°C) in which bacteria thrive.
That’s why we recommend heating an undercooked turkey at 375ºF (190°C) — you’re comfortably over the minimum temp, but not running so hot that you’ll make that sh*t chewy and tough.
Surprisingly, yes, this can be okay.
The USDA recommends judging your gobbler by internal temperature. So invest in a real-deal meat thermometer and avoid relying on the little plastic pop-up indicator that may have come pre-jammed into your turkey. They also note that smoked turkey meat may remain pink.
This can happen for several reasons:
- Chemical shifts happen during cooking, where the oxygen in the oven environment reacts with hemoglobin in the poultry’s blood.
- High levels of cytochrome C, a protein in turkey meat that has it looking pinkish. As your turkey needs to be tender AF, you probably won’t be cooking it to the temperature where turkey loses its “Legally Blonde” shade completely.
- Nitrites are compounds in turkey that contribute to its pinkness. Food producers actually add nitrites to other yummies like ham to “enpinkify” them, and nitrites naturally occur in turkey. That pink is preloaded, baby.
- Turkeys are often 14 to 18 weeks old when farmers prepare them for shipment to grocery stores. Younger birds have thinner skin, which means that the gases in the oven reach the deeper levels of the meat and interact more with the flesh and its various pink-inducing enzymes.
So no, you don’t have to worry about pink turkey meat. But that makes it doubly important to check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer — that’s your trusty guide through the rocky plains of food poisoning.
You’ve put so much love and care into getting your turkey on point that you’ve forgotten one of Thanksgiving’s many highlights — the sides!
If you need to reheat your side dishes after your undercooked turkey has finished playing catch-up, it’s easy enough to put casseroles and veggies back into the warm oven for a few minutes and nuke the gravy in the microwave for 30 seconds or so.
But your mashed potatoes will need a little special attention. Throwing the pot back onto the stove will leave them scorched, and the microwave might heat them a little unevenly. Instead, give your mashed spuds the same treatment you give yourself when a little rejuvenation is in order — run them a hot bath!
Here’s how to reheat your mash:
- Fill a large pot with water. Your mash-filled saucepan will sit in here, so avoid filling it to the brim.
- Bring that water to a boil, then remove it from the stove.
- Place your saucepan of mashed potato into the hot water, giving it a gentle stir.
- Your taters will stay hot as long as the water’s hot.
You’ve got enough to worry about as a Thanksgiving host without having undercooked turkey on your plate — literally. So there’s no need to fret if the first cook doesn’t bring your bird’s internal temp to that all-important 165ºF (74°C) stage.
Instead, just carve the bird and give it a second run on a baking tray. Be sure to keep checking the temperature every 15 minutes, and you’ll have a safe, delicious, tender turkey on the go in no time.
You can reheat all your sides (yes, even mashed potatoes) to make sure everything comes out warm at the same time.