How to safely thaw a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving

thawing your Thanksgiving turkey safely

If you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, knowing how to safely thaw your frozen turkey is a must. The big day is just a few short weeks away and food safety should be your top priority. By thawing your frozen turkey safely you will ensure your guests get sent home with Thanksgiving leftovers, not food poisoning.

Below are guidelines on how to thaw a turkey at three different speeds: slow, medium and fast. It can take up to a week for a very large turkey to defrost, so plan your thawing method ahead of time to ensure you have one that works best for you and the size of your bird.

Slow: Thawing in the Refrigerator

According to the USDA, the best and safest way to thaw frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. This method is the most hands-off and results in a completely defrosted bird that is ready to roast.

This method takes approximately 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. A 15 pound bird will take about 3 days to thaw completely. Also, you can hold the thawed turkey in the fridge for up to 2 days before cooking.

How to properly defrost a turkey in the refrigerator:

  1. Keep the turkey in it’s original, airtight packaging.
  2. Place the turkey in a large pan to catch any liquid that will melt from the turkey as it thaws.
  3. Clear out a spot for the turkey on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so that any juices that leak do not contaminate other items.
  4. Place the pan with the frozen turkey in your refrigerator and allow to thaw for the appropriate amount of time. So, if the turkey weighs 4 to 12 pounds plan for it to defrost in the fridge for one to three days.

Medium: Thawing in Cold Water

If you are pressed for time and thawing your bird in the refrigerator just isn’t an option you can quickly thaw frozen turkey using the cold water method. Keep in mind, this method is a little bit more work than refrigerator thawing, and not very practical for larger birds.

This method takes approximately 30 minutes of thawing time for each pound of turkey, which translates to two to siz hours for a 4 to 12 pound turkey.

How to properly defrost a turkey in cold water:

  1. Just like the refrigerator method, it’s important to keep the turkey in it’s original, airtight package. This will prevent any cross-contamination and ensure that the bird won’t absorb any extra water during the thawing process.
  2. Place the sealed bag breast-side down in a sink or bucket large enough so the turkey will be completely submerged. Fill with cold water. You may need to cover the turkey with a plate or something heavy to keep it from floating.
  3. Change the cold water every 30 minutes. This will help with thawing and to ward off any contaminating bacteria.
  4. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

It is also possible to use a combination of the slow and medium thawing methods. Use the fridge for the first two days of thawing, and finish in the sink early Thanksgiving morning.

Fast: Thawing in the Microwave

Before deciding to thaw the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal in the microwave, make sure it actually fits in there with enough space to spin. Also, times and power settings will vary for each microwave model, so be sure to read the user manual for your oven to get instructions for thawing a frozen turkey.

This method could take an hour or more on the defrost setting, depending on the size of your turkey. If your microwave lacks a defrost function, determine how long the bird needs to stay in there based on it’s weight. Six minutes per pound is a good rule of thumb. Make sure to rotate and flip your bird throughout the microwave thawing process to make sure it doesn’t get heated unevenly.

How to properly defrost a turkey in the microwave:

  1. Take the turkey out of its wrapping, and remove metal clips or tags.
  2. Place the turkey breast-side up in a microwave-safe pan to catch any drips.
  3. After the turkey is thawed, wash the inside of your microwave to prevent cross-contamination.
  4. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

Regardless of the thawing method you choose, always confirm that the bird has thawed completely before cooking. You can do this by reaching one hand into the hollow part of the bird and make sure they are no longer hard or icy. If they are, the turkey definitely needs ore time to thaw.

Still having trouble determining the thaw time of the turkey? Try this calculator— which allows people to choose either the refrigerator or cold-water method.

Turkey Thawing Time Calculator

We cannot over-emphasize food safety when it comes to thawing turkey. It’s important to keep the whole turkey at a safe temperature throughout the thawing process to prevent bacteria growth and food born illness. Never thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature on your kitchen counter, or in hot water.