One of the most frequently asked questions around Thanksgiving is "How do I thaw a frozen turkey?". The answer to this question is an important step in meal prep for food safety. Unsafe handling and undercooking the turkey can cause foodborne illness.
3 Ways to Safely Thaw a Turkey
There are three ways to thaw your turkey safely recommended by the USDA: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave oven. The preferred method is in the refrigerator, but it is important to plan ahead. The other methods are quicker if needed. It is safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state. The cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer than recommended for a fully thawed turkey.
1. In the Refrigerator
Place the frozen turkey in the original wrapper on a pan or in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other food. Put in the refrigerator (40 °F or below) and allow approximately 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days. The following times are suggested thawing times in the refrigerator.
|Size of Whole Turkey||Number of Days|
|4 to 12 pounds||1 to 3 days|
|12 to 16 pounds||3 to 4 days|
|16 to 20 pounds||4 to 5 days|
|20 to 24 pounds||5 to 6 days|
2. In Cold Water
If you forget to thaw the turkey or don't have room in the refrigerator for thawing, don't panic. Be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water. Submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. A turkey thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately. The following times are suggested thawing times in cold water.
|Size of Whole Turkey||Number of Hours|
|4 to 12 pounds||2 to 6 hours|
|12 to 16 pounds||6 to 8 hours|
|16 to 20 pounds||8 to 10 hours|
|20 to 24 pounds||10 to 12 hours|
3. In the Microwave Oven
Microwave thawing is safe if the turkey is not too large. Check the manufacturer's instructions for the size of turkey that will fit into your microwave oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Cook immediately after thawing.
What Thawing Methods Are Not Safe?
Thawing a turkey at on the counter, in the garage, or on the back porch is not recommended. Frozen meat or poultry left thawing at room temperature for more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. The center of the package may still be frozen, but the outer layer of the food is in the "Danger Zone" (temperatures between 40 - 140°F) where bacteria grows rapidly. Any method that is not the refrigerator, cold water, or in the microwave is not recommended for thawing a turkey.
More Turkey Tips
Everything you need to know about buying, cooking, serving, storing, and reheating a turkey.
Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing, United States Department of Agriculture
How to Safely Thaw a Turkey, United States Department of Agriculture