Everything You Need to Know About Thawing Your Thanksgiving Turkey

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How to safely thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator or with cold water in time for Thanksgiving.

Prep2 hours to 72 hours

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For the vast majority of us, the turkey we buy for Thanksgiving and other holidays will be frozen when we bring it home. And good golly, is that turkey frozen solid. Many of us have heard stories about the turkey still being frozen on Thanksgiving morning (although you can actually cook it frozen!), but don’t worry. With a little know-how, you can easily avoid that situation (and cope with it if you find yourself in it). Here’s how to thaw a turkey and still be on-schedule for cooking the turkey for your holiday meal.

How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey

There are two methods for thawing a frozen turkey: in the refrigerator or with cold water. The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator, with a thawing time of 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. Another way of thawing turkey is with a cold water, which requires a thawing time of 30 minutes for every 1 pound of turkey.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Method 1: How to Thaw a Turkey in the Refrigerator

Thawing your turkey in the fridge is by far the safest and easiest method — it’s totally hands-off — but it takes the longest and requires a few days of prep. Here’s how to do it efficiently:

  1. Place the turkey (in its original packaging) on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. The rack helps to elevate the turkey and provide circulation on all sides for even thawing, but isn’t strictly necessary if you don’t have one or are using a different pan. But be sure to place the turkey in some sort of pan to catch any juices that may drip from the turkey’s packaging as it thaws (which can potentially cross-contaminate other food in your fridge).
  2. Transfer the turkey to the refrigerator. Make sure there is nothing touching or leaning against the turkey. Do not place anything else in the pan with the turkey; juices may leak from the turkey as it thaws and can contaminate anything else in the pan.
  3. Thaw the turkey completely in the fridge. Total thawing time will depend on the size of your turkey; refer to the chart below and allow about 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey. If you have time, give yourself a day or two as a buffer just in case your turkey takes longer to thaw than expected. Thawed turkeys can be kept for up to two days in the refrigerator, so it’s better to err on the side of allowing more time than less.

A note on brining: If you’re planning to brine your turkey, either in a brine solution or with a dry-brine, you can start this while it’s still partially frozen.

Method 2: How to Thaw a Turkey in Cold Water

If you’re running short on time, you can speed up the thawing process with the cold water method: Simply submerge the frozen turkey, still in its packaging, in cold tap water, allowing about 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Place your turkey in a large plastic bag. The packaging on your turkey isn’t necessarily waterproof. To prevent the turkey from getting waterlogged during this quick-thaw process, put it in a large plastic bag to protect it.
  2. Place the turkey in a large pot or bucket. Make sure the turkey fits inside the pot and can be fully submerged.
  3. Fill the pot with cold water. Do not use warm or hot water to speed thawing — this puts the turkey within the “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F for longer than is safe, and your risk of food poisoning increases drastically. Weigh the turkey down with a pot or other heavy pan if it floats.
  4. Change out the water every 30 minutes. As notes above, estimate roughly 30 minutes for every pound of turkey and use the chart below for timing. A turkey thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately. If you find that your turkey is still partially frozen on Thanksgiving Day, follow this guide on how to cook a frozen turkey — yes, it’s possible!

How Long to Thaw a Turkey

Method 1: How Long to Thaw a Turkey in the Refrigerator

  • 4- to 12-pound turkey: 1 to 3 days
  • 12- to 16-pound turkey: 3 to 4 days
  • 16- to 20-pound turkey: 4 to 5 days
  • 20- to 24-pound turkey: 5 to 6 days

Method 2: How Long to Thaw a Turkey in Cold Water

  • 4- to 12-pound turkey: 2 to 6 hours
  • 12- to 16-pound turkey: 6 to 8 hours
  • 16- to 20-pound turkey: 8 to 10 hours
  • 20- to 24-pound turkey: 10 to 12 hours

How to Tell When Your Turkey Is Thawed

  1. Check the breast meat: When thawed, the breast meat should feel pliable and springy.
  2. Check the legs: When thawed, the legs and wings should move loosely in their sockets.
  3. Check the inside: The inside should be free of ice crystals and you should be able to easily remove the packet of giblets.

Why You Shouldn’t Thaw a Turkey on the Countertop

You should never leave your turkey on the counter to thaw, or try thawing your turkey in warm water, or heating it with a hair dryer, or any other shortcuts, per the USDA. All of these methods bring the turkey’s temperature to the “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F, which drastically increases your risk of food poisoning.

How to safely thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator or with cold water in time for Thanksgiving.

Ingredients

  • 1

    frozen turkey, any size

Equipment

  • Refrigerator thawing: Roasting pan with rack or other pan large enough to hold the turkey

  • Quick thawing: Large plastic bag, like a garbage bag or extra-large zip-top bag

  • Quick thawing: Large pot or bucket

How to Thaw a Turkey in the Refrigerator:

  1. Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. This will catch any juices that may leak from the turkey’s packaging as it thaws. The rack helps to elevate the turkey and provide circulation on all sides for even thawing, but isn’t strictly necessary if you don’t have one or are using a different pan.

  2. Transfer the turkey to the refrigerator. Make sure there is nothing touching or leaning against the turkey. Do not place anything else in the pan with the turkey; juices may leak from the turkey as it thaws and can contaminate anything else in the pan.

  3. Thaw the turkey completely in the fridge. Total thawing time will depend on the size of your turkey; refer to the chart in this post. If you have time, give yourself a day or two as a buffer just in case your turkey takes longer to thaw than expected. Thawed turkeys can be kept for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

How to Thaw a Turkey in Cold Water:

  1. Place your turkey in a large plastic bag. The packaging on your turkey isn’t necessarily waterproof. To prevent the turkey from getting waterlogged during this quick-thaw process, put it in a large plastic bag to protect it.

  2. Place the turkey in a large pot or bucket. Make sure the turkey fits inside the pot and can be fully submerged.

  3. Fill the pot with cold water. Do not use warm or hot water to speed thawing — this puts the turkey within the “danger zone” (40°F to 140°F) for longer than is safe, and your risk of food poisoning increases drastically. Weigh the turkey down with a pot or other heavy pan if it floats.

  4. Weight the turkey down with a pot or other heavy pan if it floats. Change the water every 30 minutes. Continue until the turkey is thawed. Refer to the chart in this post.

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