updated 11/21/2012 10:48:52 AM ET 2012-11-21T15:48:52

Thanksgiving is an unusual day for most Americans, in that we generally cook up a whole bird rather than a precut array of breasts and thighs. Cooking a turkey this way can be a real challenge — but a few simple steps will keep you safe from food-borne illness.

After you've safely thawed your turkey and cleaned your cutting boards and utensils, you'll want to get that bird in the oven. But how do you know when it's ready?

The best tool, according to North Carolina State University food safety expert Ben Chapman, is a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. Pop-up thermometers that come with the turkey are unreliable, Chapman said in a new video on turkey food safety, and older dial thermometers are less precise than digital versions.

Using a digital thermometer, check the bird in multiple places, Chapman said. You want to be sure the whole turkey hits 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius). Stay away from bones, which heat faster, and focus on thick portions of meat, especially sections in, and around, the body cavity.

The key temperature for turkey and chicken is 165 degrees F. According to, fresh pork, beef, veal and lamb need to reach a temperature of 145 degrees F (63 degrees C), while ground beef and other red meats need to hit 160 degrees F (71 degrees C). Take care when reheating leftovers, too: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends casseroles and leftovers reach 165 F, as well.

Keeping close tabs on your turkey's temperature will make Thanksgiving much safer, Chapman said.

"By taking the temperature in multiple spots and knowing that it's hit 165, we've done everything we can to reduce risk," he said.

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