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What's the Fastest Way to Thaw a Frozen Turkey?

Butterball turkeys
Crystal City Costco sells Butterball turkeys two days before Thanksgiving. Paul J.Richards/AFP/Getty Images

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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 Fahrenheit (15 to 21 Celsius) [source: USDA]. 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 Fahrenheit (4 Celsius). Assuming you don't want to give your guests food poisoning, there are three different ways to thaw a turkey, but there's one way to skip the thawing entirely if you need to.

If you've managed to forget to thaw your turkey, there's no reason to despair. You can cook the turkey still frozen. And here's the kicker -- it's actually safer because there are no uncooked juices that can spill on the preparation area [source: Sternweis]. You'll need to cook it considerably longer than you would if you'd remembered to defrost it -- about five hours at 325 Fahrenheit (162 Celsius) for a 12 to14 pound (5 to 6 kilogram) turkey to get it to the recommended internal temperature of 165 to 185 Fahrenheit (73 to 85 Celsius). If you're in a pinch or you forgot to follow the directions on the next page, it'll work.

That said, thawing out the turkey ahead of time is the best route to take. The three most common ways to thaw out a turkey are in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. We'll give you a crash course in turkey thawing on the next page.

If you find yourself ready for the turkey cooking with a few days to spare, you might want to consider the refrigerator method. Thawing it 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.

Here's a cheat sheet in case your math skills aren't so good:

  • 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 change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold. You'll want to allow about 30 minutes of thawing time per pound (.4 kilograms) of turkey.

Check out this list to figure out which thawing time is right for you and your turkey:

  • 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

Finally, if you have a tiny little turkey (or a huge microwave), you can thaw it out in the microwave. The best guide for how long it'll take should be listed in your owner's manual -- probably around 60 to 90 minutes on the defrost cycle. Once it's thawed, make sure you cook it right away.

To prepare the turkey for roasting, pull out the giblets and rinse the turkey inside and out. Don't forget to wash your hands and anything in the kitchen that has touched the raw turkey. Use a meat thermometer to figure out when your turkey is done -- when the thermometer registers 185 Fahrenheit (85 Celsius) in the thickest part of the turkey, it's ready to eat.

Here are some rules of thumb for turkey roasting time (assuming your oven is heated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit or 163 Celsius):

8 to 10 pounds (3 to 5 kilograms):

  • 2 hours, 45 minutes to 3 hours, unstuffed;
  • 3 hours to 3 hours, 30 minutes, stuffed.

12 to 14 pounds (5 to 6 kilograms):

  • 3 hours to 3 hours, 45 minutes, unstuffed;
  • 3 hours, 30 minutes to 4 hours, stuffed.

14 to 18 pounds (6 to 8 kilograms):

  • 3 hours, 45 minutes to 4 hours, 15 minutes, unstuffed;
  • 4 hours to 4 hours 15 minutes, stuffed.

18 to 20 pounds (8 to 9 kilograms):

  • 4 hours, 15 minutes to 4 hours, 30 minutes, unstuffed;
  • 4 hours, 15 minutes to 4 hours, 45 minutes, stuffed.

20 to 24 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms):

  • 4 hours, 30 minutes to 5 hours, unstuffed;
  • 4 hours, 45 minutes to 5 hours, 15 minutes, stuffed.

It may be true that good things come to those that wait, but when it comes to the Thanksgiving Day bird, there are ways to speed up the process and get that delicious food on the table.

For lots more tasty information, click to the next page.

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Sources

  • Sternweis, Laura. "Forgot to Thaw the Turkey? Cook it Anyway." Iowa State University. Nov. 6, 2008. (April 26, 2011) http://www.extension.iastate.edu/news/2008/nov/120601.htm
  • USDA. "How Temperatures Affect Food." (April 26, 2011) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/how_temperatures_affect_food/index.asp

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