Each year, thousands of Americans attempt to cook their first Thanksgiving turkey. These same people quickly realize it takes a heck of a lot more work to thaw out a frozen turkey than they might have initially planned.
It's not as easy as just letting the bird sit for a while. If you thaw a turkey incorrectly, bacteria will grow. That's because bacteria's favorite temperature happens to be right around room temperature, 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 21 degrees Celsius). If you're thawing your turkey on the kitchen counter, the outside of the bird will reach those temperatures pretty quickly, but the inside will still be frozen solid.
Instead, the optimal temperature for thawing a turkey is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Assuming you don't want to give your guests food poisoning, there are two safe ways to thaw a turkey, but there's one way to skip the thawing entirely if you need to.
That said, thawing out the turkey ahead of time is the best route to take. The two most common ways to thaw out a turkey are in the refrigerator or in cold water.
If you have a few days to spare before you have to cook your turkey, the safest way to thaw it is in your refrigerator. Thawing a turkey out in the refrigerator can be handy because you can leave it there until it's ready to cook — just don't leave it in its thawed state for more than a day. All you need to do is keep the turkey in its original wrapping and then put it in a pan to catch the moisture. Be sure to allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 5 pounds (2 kilograms) of turkey.
Time to Thaw Turkey in the Fridge
- 8 to 12 pounds (3 to 5 kilograms): 1 to 2 days
- 12 to 16 pounds (5 to 7 kilograms): 2 to 3 days
- 16 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kilograms): 3 to 4 days
- 20 to 24 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms): 4 to 5 days
If you don't have that much time to spare, thawing a turkey in cold water is a good Plan B. Immerse your packaged turkey in ice-cold water and be sure to change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold. You want to allow about 30 minutes of thawing time per pound (.4 kilograms) of turkey.
Time to Thaw Turkey in Cold Water
- 8 to 12 pounds (3 to 5 kilograms): 4 to 6 hours
- 12 to 16 pounds (5 to 7 kilograms): 6 to 8 hours
- 16 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kilograms): 8 to 10 hours
- 20 to 24 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms): 10 to 12 hours
Last Minute Defrosting
If you've managed to forget to thaw your turkey entirely, you still have an option, even on Thanksgiving Day. Sam Beattie, an Iowa State University Extension food safety specialist says you can roast the turkey while it's still frozen. And here's the kicker — it might actually be safer because there are no uncooked juices that can spill on the preparation area.
You'll need to roast it considerably longer than you would if you'd defrosted it — about five hours at 325 degrees Fahrenheit (162 degrees Celsius) for a 12 to 14 pound (5 to 6 kilogram) turkey to get it to the recommended internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit (73 degrees Celsius). Safety note: You cannot fry a frozen turkey. Putting a frozen turkey into the fryer is extremely dangerous. If you drop a frozen turkey into a vat of hot oil, the ice changes to steam and expands 1,700 times its original volume. That will make the oil to spill over and in an instant you can have an explosion.
Next, we give roasting times for turkeys thawed in advance.