Turkey Danger Zone: What It is and How to Avoid It

Are you wondering what the danger zone is for turkey?

You don’t want your raw turkey to be in this zone for more than an hour, or it isn’t safe to eat.

Read on to find out about the turkey danger zone so that you can practice food safety and smoke your turkey like a pro.

What Is The Turkey Danger Zone?

The danger zone for turkey and other meat products is considered to be the range between 40°F and 140°F.

This is because bacteria reproduce at a rapid pace within this temperature span which can cause food-borne illnesses.

You don’t want to allow your turkey to sit in the danger zone for more than an hour.

Keeping meat out of the danger zone temperatures of 40°F to 140°F is one of the most important factors in food safety, to prevent illness.

Why 40°F to 140°F?

When food is stored at a temperature below 40°, any bacterial growth slows to a reasonable pace. This is why it takes longer for meat to spoil when it is stored in the refrigerator, compared to the counter overnight.

Types of bacteria that cause foodborne illness cannot survive for long at temperatures above 140°F. This is why many meat products are considered to be fully cooked at 145°, although it is best to cook poultry for a bit longer.

Accurately Monitoring The Danger Zones

The critical piece of cooking equipment (apart from a heat source) is a thermometer.

Why is a meat thermometer crucial?

So you can accurately monitor the proper temperature range in the turkey meat.

Don’t guess if you are within safe temperatures and out of the danger zone. Due to the harmful bacteria growth and the risk of food poisoning.

Read further for food safety advice when smoking turkey as well as how else you can reduce contamination from potential bacteria growth.

Tip: Calibrate the probes with ice water before starting your cooking method.

The Danger Zone In Each Stage Of Smoking Turkey

Below are the specifically applied temperature ranges for preparing and cooking a turkey. I am focusing on an entire bird with the temps and timings.

The rule of thumb for cooking different cuts in half the time but at the same temperatures.

The Danger Zone When Storing Turkey

Raw turkey meat should always be stored refrigerated between 3°F – 39°F.

Frozen Turkey & Defrosting

Freeze turkey airtight and below 0°F for no longer than 3 months. Do not leave a raw or thawing turkey at temps between 40°F – 140°F for longer than 60 minutes.

Refrigerated Fresh Turkey

Plan on smoking fresh turkey 3 days after purchase in the above temp range.

The Danger Zone When Preparing The Turkey

Preparing a turkey covers a few key steps like bringing or seasoning. Cover the turkey in a brine solution and refrigerate between 3°F – 39°F.

Do not take longer than 60 minutes to season your turkey in an air temperature of 40°F – 140°F.

The Danger Zone For Smoking A Turkey

The smoking process uses indirect heat and plenty of time.

The smoker temperature should be set between 200°F – 350°F when cooking turkey.

Read further for tips on how to work out the smoking times as well as the safe internal temperatures for the finished meat.

The Danger Zone When Resting A Turkey

Resting turkey meat is a key part of the process. It will keep the bird moist and flavorful.

Monitor the internal temperature of the cooked meat while resting. The temperature should not fall below 140°F.

The Danger Zone For Cooked Turkey

Realized you have cooked too much meat minutes before carving?

Don’t worry as leftover turkey meat is delicious for all kinds of dishes. Let the meat cool to 140°F and then refrigerate in an airtight container. Consume within 3 days.

Can Turkey Be Salvaged After It Is Kept In The Danger Zone?

Some tend to think that cooking or reheating meat that has been sitting out too long will destroy the potential bacteria.

However, this has proven to be a myth. Although the bacteria might be killed off when cooking or reheating, the toxins that are created will still be present in the meat.

Hence, it is a good idea to discard meat that has been sitting out at room temperature for too long.

How To Store Turkey?

A fresh turkey that has been purchased for the smoker should be stored at temperatures between 26°F to 38°F.

If the meat gets colder, it may start to freeze in patches.

On the other hand, if it gets any warmer, you will be approaching the danger zone and will be at risk of food-borne illness.

Storing Frozen Turkey

Frozen turkeys should be stored at or below 0°F.

The freezer will ensure that any growth of bacteria is halted. However, it is best to thaw your turkey before smoking and ensure you cook it within 12 months to maintain the most desirable texture.

Storing Leftovers

One of the most common causes of foodborne illness is improper cooling of cooked foods. This is because bacteria can be reintroduced into foods after it is safely cooked.

Hence, leftovers must be put into shallow containers for quick cooling and should be refrigerated at 40°F or below within two hours.

How To Reheat Leftover Turkey

Foods should be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F or until it is hot and steaming.

If using a microwave oven, make sure you cover the food and keep rotating it so it heats evenly.

Skip The Stuffing

It is recommended not to stuff a turkey that you intend to smoke.

Smoking takes place at low temperatures, which means it can take too long for the temperature of the stuffing to reach the required temperature of 165°F.

Hence, it is best to prepare your stuff separately to ensure proper food safety.

Safe Temperature To Smoke Turkey

You should want the turkey to clear the danger zone as soon as possible, so it is recommended to aim for a smoker temperature above 200°F.

225°F is a good temperature for the meat to cook slowly but thoroughly. This will allow the meat to cook slowly while getting infused with plenty of smoky goodness.

Ideal Internal Temperature For Smoked Turkey

Turkey breast is considered done once it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. You may pull it off the heat at 160°, as the bird will continue cooking while it rests.

Dark meat such as the thighs, drumsticks, and wings can be cooked for a while longer than an internal temp of 180°F to attain a more succulent flavor.

You should use a calibrated instant-read thermometer to make sure the turkey is fully cooked. Be careful not to let the thermometer probe touch the bone, as this will provide an inaccurate reading.

How To Tell If Your Turkey Meat Has Gone Bad

Air Exposure

Did you remove the turkey from the original package? Or have noticed a breach in the seal?

Exposure to air accelerates the growth of bacteria. Check the packaging for any defects before refrigerating. Always store in airtight conditions.

Texture Of Turkey

If you are still not sure then check for a slimy texture in the meat.

The turkey should be a bit moist. But does it have an overly sticky texture?

This is an obvious sign of rotten meat! Air exposure can also cause moisture loss.This can be indicated by dry and hard meat.

The Color Of Bad Turkey Meat

The turkey breasts will be white and the darker meat… dark! A brownish or gray color is not what you want to see.

Inspect for signs of discoloration in raw poultry carefully.

Smelly Signs Of Spoilage

Probably the most effective way to know if any meat products are bad. A foul odor or sour smell is hard to miss.

Raw meat that is off has a definitive smell that stinks of rotten eggs.

The Types Of Turkey Meat & Internal Temperatures

There are two different types of meat in a turkey. White from the breast meat and dark from the thigh or legs.

The white meat has a lighter taste and is dense texture. The darker meat has a gamey taste as it is closer to the bones.

You are monitoring 2 internal temperatures before removing from the smoker. Insert at least 1 digital meat thermometer into these cuts.

  • The temperature probe in the dark meat should read 180°F.
  • The temperature probe in the white meat should read 165°F.

What Is The Size Of A Turkey?

The average size of a turkey is 14 lbs but the larger birds can reach 30!

How Does This Effect The Danger Zone?

A larger turkey will have a longer cook time and temperature retention.

So it will likely lose temperature at a slower rate than if it was smaller. This can slightly increase the timetable to leave it out of the fridge. Or how long you let the bird rest.

Why Is Smoking The Preferred Cooking Method?

Hot smoking with indirect heat is my favorite way for cooking a turkey.

Smoking gives a natural smoky flavor from wood chips. The slower cooking creates time for the Millard reaction two getting going.

This is a chemical reaction responsible for golden crispy skin and delicate meat.

How Does This Effect The Danger Zone?

Smoking at a consistent and correct temperature takes a while. Which means an even distribution of heat through the meat proteins.

The lower the smoker’s temp, the faster rate of cooling. The higher the smoker’s temp, the slower rate of cooling.

Estimating The Cooking Time For Smoked Turkey

Below is how you can estimate the time it will take to smoke a turkey.

  • A low 225°F cooks at 40 – 45 minutes per pound.
  • A middle 275°F cooks at 30 – 35 minutes per pound.
  • A high 325°F cooks at 20-25 minutes per pound.

Remember to fully defrost as a frozen bird will take longer to cook. But more important, will not cook evenly meaning it is more likely to fall into the danger zone.

5 Tips To Practice Food Safety

Below are some tips you can practice to ensure proper food safety the next time you are smoking turkey.

Don’t Wash Turkey

It is not recommended to wash raw meat and poultry before cooking. This can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away. Since cooking poultry to the right temperature kills bacteria, washing before is unnecessary.

Use A Meat Thermometer

The best way to know if a turkey is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer. Your thermometer should register 165°F in the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh if it is safe to eat.

Don’t Leave Outside

Storing food outside is not safe because of temperature variation. A plastic food storage container may heat up and climb into the danger zone of above 40°F which can lead to foodborne illness.

Furthermore, domesticated or wild animals may get into your turkey too. The best way to keep the bird at a safe temperature is in a cooler with ice.

Leftovers Are Good For Four Days

Refrigerate the turkey as soon as you can, preferably within two hours of the bird coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last up to four days in the refrigerator, so you should freeze them if you aren’t using them immediately.

Bottom line

Smoking turkey can lead to foodborne illness if not handled carefully and kept out of the above-mentioned temperatures known as the ‘danger zone’.

However, as long as you follow the proper storage practices and make sure your smoker maintains a consistent temperature, you are sure to stay in the clear and prepare a delicious turkey!

Smoke On!

Charlie

Author: Charlie Reeves
Hi, I’m Charlie, I am head taste tester at Simply Meat Smoking! I love it grilling, smoking, and getting out in the yard with the kids! The family also love to test all my recipes (especially my EXTRA CRISPY pulled pork, smoky pork loin, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill)

You will usually find me playing with the kids, perfecting my brisket bark, or sipping beers with the boys around the fire. Can’t wait to share all my delicious smoking and grilling adventures with you!

You can read more on our About Us page.

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