How to Cook a Frozen Turkey Without Thawing It

Cooked turkey
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If you're reading this article on Thanksgiving morning, you're likely in a state of panic.

If so, take a deep breath. Exhale. Everything is going to be fine. It IS possible to cook a turkey from a frozen state—yes, really! And not only will it be thoroughly cooked, it'll be beautifully browned, moist and delicious. 

If you want to skip to the part where we tell you what to do, scroll down to where it says "How to Cook a Frozen Turkey."

You can come back and read the rest later, once the bird is in the oven and you're drinking a glass of wine.

Properly Thawing a Frozen Turkey Can Take Days

Every year we encourage readers to plan ahead to allow adequate time for their frozen turkey to defrost. Judging by how popular the article is, it's a topic that a lot of readers wonder about.

Unfortunately, many of those readers seem to be finding the piece on Thanksgiving morning, at which point it's too late to use any of the methods the article describes.

That's because the only safe way to properly defrost a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator, which, depending on how big your turkey is, can actually take several days—up to five days for a 20-pound bird.

If you try to speed up the process or use a technique that isn't safe, you risk turning your turkey into a bacteria bomb that could end up making a lot of people sick.

With that in mind, if you wake up Thanksgiving morning and your turkey is a solidly frozen boulder, you might start thinking you're going to have to order take-out, or maybe reschedule Thanksgiving for Saturday.

Is It Safe to Cook a Frozen Turkey?

The good news is, you CAN cook a turkey that's still frozen. In fact, a study by an MIT-educated food safety consultant describes how it can be done in accordance with the FDA Food Code.

Indeed, from a certain standpoint, it's a safer method, since a frozen turkey won't drip salmonella-laden juices all over your sink and countertop.

Moreover, the breast, which is the most prone to overcooking and drying out, cooks more slowly when it starts off frozen, so your white meat may turn out juicier than usual.

On the other hand, you won't be able to brine the turkey, or season it with your famous spice rub. Stuffing it will also be problematic.

Remember though, and this is important: At this point, you are looking to salvage your Thanksgiving. Whatever hopes and dreams you nurtured for the accolades this turkey would earn (So flavorful! Juiciest one ever!) must now give way to cold, hard reality. 

You'll have a turkey, and it'll be fully cooked. It will probably not win turkey of the year. But when you pull this off (and you will), you will have reason to be proud.

After all, anyone can cook a turkey when nothing goes wrong. It's overcoming adversity that makes what you're about to accomplish so special. Ready? Let's go.

How to Cook a Frozen Turkey

First, manage your guests' expectations. Cooking a frozen turkey will take around 50 percent longer than cooking one that's already been thawed. So you'll want to break out the snacks to make sure folks don't start eating the furniture.

For a 14 to 18 pound turkey, which would ordinarily require four hours of cooking time, you'll need about 6 hours in the oven, plus another 30 to 45 minutes to rest afterward (the turkey, not you, although you'll need a rest by then too).

You'll want to modify the cooking times if your turkey weighs less or more than that. A meat thermometer (the kind you leave in the bird while it roasts) will help. But as a rough guide, figure 1.5 times whatever your cooking time would've been.

Second, preheat your oven to 325 F. You want a very low temperature so that the outside of the turkey doesn't burn before the inside has cooked.

Line a roasting pan with foil, and put a roasting rack in it. This will ensure that the turkey stays above any liquid that may drain out, which would cause it to steam rather than roast. And it will cook more evenly on a shallow pan than one with high sides.

You may have better luck setting the wrapped turkey onto the rack and then peeling the wrapper off the turkey, rather than trying to handle a naked, frozen turkey.

Just make certain that you've removed all of the wrappers.

Don't Forget the Bag of Giblets!

Obviously, with the turkey frozen solid, you won't be able to pull the bag of giblets out of the cavity. Don't worry about it right now. Set the turkey on the rack and put it in the oven. Do not open the door of the oven for two hours.

After two hours, you should be able to work your meat thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh. What works best is the digital kind that you can set to alert you when your meat or poultry reaches its target temperature. Ideally the thigh will make it to 175 to 180 F, but for now, it'll probably read 90 to 95 F.

Once you have the probe into the thigh, brush the skin with melted butter, season with salt and pepper and return it to the oven for another hour. By then you should be able to get the bag of giblets out. Fortunately these days it seems like they come wrapped in paper rather than plastic, but either way, you definitely don't want to leave it in there.

At the three-hour mark, the thigh reading should be around 140 F, but it depends on whether you got the thermometer all the way in or not. It can be tricky when it's frozen, and you may not realize if you've hit bone.

Under normal circumstances, making multiple holes in a turkey with thermometers would not be recommended. But these are not normal circumstances.

Therefore, ideally, in addition to your probe thermometer, you will also have an instant-read thermometer. That way you can leave the probe thermometer in the thigh while using the instant-read thermometer to take temperature readings elsewhere, like the breast, and within the body cavity.

Target Temperature is 165 F

To be safe, every part of the turkey must reach 165 F. Again, the goal is that you'll hit 175 F at the thigh, but that's more of a quality issue. Safety-wise, the magic number is 165 F.

If all goes well, the thigh will read between 175 and 180 F, while everywhere else is telling you at least 165 F. If so, congratulations! You can now take the turkey out of the oven, cover it with foil and let it rest for 30 to 45 minutes before carving.

Meanwhile, you can use the pan drippings to make a magnificent gravy.

What To Do When Turkey Is Still Frozen Inside

Here is a useful tip, whether you're using the method described above, or you're cooking a turkey the conventional way, and you've wound up here because your turkey is still frozen inside and you're wondering what to do:

Put it back in the oven and continue cooking it!

If it's still frozen on the inside, it means that the frozen parts, as well as other surrounding parts of the bird, are still uncooked. As in, raw. Not only would raw turkey not be tasty, merely handling it would pose a significant food safety hazard (to say nothing of eating it).

So put it back in the oven and let it continue cooking until the pop-up timer pops up and/or a temperature reading at the thigh reads 175 to 185 F. If the reason you took it out of the oven, to begin with is that the skin is looking quite brown, drape some foil over it to prevent it from getting too dark, and let it continue cooking.

Finally, a word of caution. Whatever you do, DO NOT try to deep-fry a frozen turkey. Hot oil could explode, badly injuring you or someone else, and you might start a fire.