How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey Safely

You bought a turkey, but it's frozen solid! Now what? Don't worry, because we're here to guide you through three different ways to safely thaw a frozen turkey.

frozen turkey illustration
Photo: Getty Images

Whether you pre-order an heirloom turkey or buy a Butterball at the grocery store, your bird is probably still going to be frozen solid when it arrives at home. Although you may be preoccupied with the long list of to-dos that come with hosting a turkey feast, don't let defrosting your turkey become an afterthought. Knowing the different thawing methods will help you create a strong game plan for the day-of cooking, and it'll also help you choose the method that works best for you. Below we'll go over all the ways you can safely thaw a frozen turkey and how long each method takes. Plus, we'll also tell you how not to thaw a turkey (hint: it's probably the way you saw Grandma do it).

Thawing in the Refrigerator

When you can plan ahead, this is our preferred way of thawing a frozen turkey because it's easy and hands-free. However, it does require a bit of planning in advance. The general rule of thumb is that it takes about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey—a rule endorsed by the USDA. That means a 25-pound bird may take more than six days to completely thaw. If you have the time and fridge space, we highly recommend taking this route as it's super simple and requires little to no work on your end.

To safely thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, make sure your refrigerator is set to 40°F or lower, and clear a space for it on the bottom shelf to ensure that turkey juices will not drip down onto other items. Keep the turkey in its original packaging and place it breast-side up on a roasting pan or tray. The pan will catch any of that turkey liquid that may seep out of the packaging and prevent it from cross-contaminating other foods in your fridge. If you can, add an extra day or two when you calculate your thawing time—this is just in case it ends up taking longer to thaw your bird than expected. If you're planning on brining your turkey ahead of time, you can do so even when it's not fully thawed. Once thawed, the turkey can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Thawing in a Sink or Bucket

If you don't have enough time to defrost your frozen turkey in the refrigerator, thawing it in a sink or bucket with cold water is the way to go. This method is not very difficult, but does require more work and monitoring. You also have to do this the day you're planning on cooking your turkey, as it needs to be roasted as soon as it's finished thawing. As a general rule, it takes about 30 minutes to defrost each pound of frozen turkey. This means a 25-pound turkey will take about 12 and a half hours to thaw.

To safely thaw a turkey in a sink or bucket, keep the turkey in its original packaging and place it inside a large plastic bag. The original packaging is not always fully sealed and so it's important to wrap it up one more time to prevent any water from seeping in. Fill a large sink or bucket with very cold water and completely submerge the turkey. If your turkey starts to float, weigh it down with something heavy like a pot. Change the water every 30 minutes. Once your turkey is thawed, it must be cooked immediately.

You can also use a combination of the refrigerator and sink method. Just remember that if you finish with the sink method, you have to cook your bird right away.

Thawing in the Microwave

We do not recommend thawing any meat in the microwave because the outcome can be uneven and the texture of the meat may suffer. But, if you forgot about the crucial thawing step or didn't have time to thaw your turkey properly, you may decide to use the microwave. This method is only useful when you're dealing with separated turkey breasts or legs, because most frozen whole turkeys will not fit in most microwaves.

However, the microwave is the fastest way to defrost a turkey. As a point of reference, it'll take about six minutes to defrost 1 pound of frozen turkey.

To thaw a turkey in a microwave, follow your machine's instruction manual and set it to defrost mode. Remove the turkey from its packaging and take out all clips, tags and packaged giblets. Put the turkey on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave in intervals, rotating and flipping the turkey in between to make sure it's thawing evenly. If it feels like the meat is beginning to cook, let it rest for about five minutes and then continue to microwave. Once the turkey is fully thawed, cook it immediately.

How to Tell When a Turkey Is Thawed

Your turkey is completely thawed when the breast meat feels springy and flesh-like and the legs and wings move easily in their joints. Check the inside of your turkey to make sure there are no more ice crystals.

Can I Cook a Turkey from Frozen or Partially Frozen?

If you can't be bothered with any of the thawing methods, you're in luck, because turkeys can be cooked from frozen. Follow the recipe you have and add about 50% more to the cooking time. If your turkey is partially frozen, add about 25% more cooking time. Since you won't be able to remove the giblet packet when the turkey is fully frozen, do so in the middle of cooking once the turkey has thawed enough.

How Not to Thaw a Turkey

It's important to choose a safe method to thaw a frozen turkey for food safety reasons. According to the USDA, perishable foods shouldn't be kept at room temperature for more than two hours. If you live in a warm climate (above 90°F) this time frame reduces to one hour. This is because bacteria are prone to grow in temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, also known as the danger zone. Here are the wrong ways of thawing a turkey:

  • Never thaw a frozen turkey on a countertop overnight.
  • Do not defrost a turkey in hot water, as it will put your meat in the "danger zone" faster than leaving it out at room temperature.
  • Do not use a dishwasher to defrost a turkey.
  • Never use a blow dryer to thaw a turkey.

Bottom Line

We admit figuring out how to defrost your bird is not the most exciting task. We'd rather spend our time searching for new recipes and putting together our grocery list. But, we have to say, it does make life a whole lot easier because it gives you full control of your prep timeline. That means knowing how many days in advance you need to buy your turkey if you decide to thaw it in the fridge. Or, knowing how early you need to wake up if you want to defrost in the sink. Cooking a big turkey feast can be stressful! Taking a few minutes to figure out how to safely defrost your turkey will save you a lot of unnecessary stress in the long run.

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