How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey Safely

Thawing a frozen turkey improperly allows bacteria to grow, which can lead to food-borne illness. The last thing you want on Thanksgiving is to make everyone in the family sick! These tips for safely thawing a turkey require planning ahead, but will help ensure that you stay safe and healthy over the holidays.

1. Don’t thaw frozen turkey at room temperature

According to the USDA, meat can be safe at room temperature for under two hours – but since turkeys can weigh 20 pounds or more, this isn’t nearly enough time to thaw them.

Don’t leave your turkey outdoors, either. Even if the weather is cold, the temperature outside isn’t consistent and can’t be regulated. Your turkey might start growing bacteria, or it might just not thaw in time.

2. Thaw frozen turkey in the refrigerator

The refrigerator is the safest, easiest place to thaw frozen turkey. This thawing process will take a lot of time, however, so you need to plan ahead.

Place the turkey in the refrigerator inside a large baking dish or other container. It’s important to keep the turkey contained so that juices don’t drip onto other foods and contaminate them with bacteria.

Let the turkey thaw for at least 24 hours per 4 or 5 pounds. In other words, allow 3 to 4 days for a 12- to 16-pound turkey, 4 to 5 days for a 16- to 20-pound turkey, or 5 to 6 days for a 20- to 24-pound turkey.

If you don’t have room in your refrigerator, you can fill a cooler with ice and leave the turkey inside it to thaw. Just make sure you check the temperature regularly and maintain it at 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Thaw frozen turkey in cold water

If you don’t have several days to spare, you can speed up the process by thawing the turkey in water. Water conducts heat better than air, so it will bring your turkey up to temperature faster.

Keep the turkey in sealed plastic packaging and into a sink filled with cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes, or it will become too warm. Let the turkey thaw for about 30 minutes per pound.

This isn’t a slow method – thawing a 20-pound turkey will take 10 hours – but it’s faster than the days needed for refrigerator thawing.

Cook the turkey immediately after thawing it in cold water to prevent bacterial growth. Also, remember to sterilize your sink afterwards, in case it was contaminated with juices from the meat.