How to Cook a Frozen Turkey Without Thawing

Turkey in roaster
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This week I'm honored to pass along an article from a study conducted by O. Peter Snyder, Jr., Ph.D. about a new way to roast your Thanksgiving turkey: put it in the oven frozen solid. Dr. Snyder is the president of the snyderHACCP.com which consults about food safety and HACCP methods for industry and business in St. Paul, Minnesota. You cook turkey from the frozen state. That's right - it goes into the oven frozen completely solid.

I've used this method many times now and have the best results. The turkey is beautifully moist and tender and perfectly browned. And it's so nice to not have to worry about thawing that huge bird!

Cooking Turkey From the Frozen State

Introduction

A common problem on Thanksgiving is waking up on Thanksgiving morning and realizing that the turkey has not been thawed, and there is not enough time to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator or in flowing water at 70ºF, which takes hours.

However, there is a very simple solution – cook the entire turkey from the frozen state. The FDA Food Code allows this, and turkey hotlines suggest it. The following is an HACCP-based procedure for cooking a 12-to-13-lb. frozen turkey.

Method

Start 5 to 5 1/2 hours before you want to serve the cooked turkey. Set the oven temperature at 325ºF. It is much better that the turkey is done 30 minutes before mealtime than to rush and serve an undercooked turkey.

Remove the wrapping from the turkey and put the turkey on a rack on a pan that has been covered with foil to make cleaning easy. You can also cook the turkey in a covered roasting pan if you have one.

Put the turkey in the oven. Do not worry about the bag with the heart, liver, etc. in the neck cavity or the neck in the center of the turkey.

They can be removed during cooking, after the turkey thaws. There will be Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter jejuni on the turkey. However, because it is frozen, there is no drip, and transfer to hands or counter is not a significant risk.

Cooking the turkey in a shallow pan on a rack assures even cooking. (Linda's note: I cook the turkey without a rack to get pan drippings for gravy.) Cooking in a pan with sides shields the bottom of the turkey from heat, and the cooking on the bottom will be non-uniform. Make sure you put the turkey in the oven breast side up. If the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, you'll be able to see it on the breast.

In the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours, the legs and thighs get up to approximately 100ºF. The breast, about 1 inch into the flesh, is still at the soft ice point, about 25ºF. At this point, begin to monitor breast temperature with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer as it thaws. You may also use a dial roast thermometer. Insert it into the breast, because it is the slowest cooking part.

After about 3 1/2 hours, the legs and thighs will be around 150 to 160ºF, and the breast, about 40 to 50ºF. The bag of heart, liver, etc. and the neck can be removed at this time, to be made into stock if desired.

Remember to do this, because the turkey will cook more evenly without that bag in the neck. And remove the turkey neck from the body cavity too at this time. If you leave them in, I have found that the turkey will take longer to cook.

At 4 1/2 to 5 hours, the turkey is nicely cooked. Check the temperature. The leg and thigh should be tender and at a temperature of 175 to 185ºF, while the breast will be moist at a temperature of 160 to 170ºF. The pop-up timer (if there is one) should have popped. Cooking turkeys to these temperatures are adequate to assure the reduction of Salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni to a safe level. (Fig. 4).

Discussion and Conclusion

This is an excellent way to cook turkey. Actually, cooking a turkey from the frozen state has benefits over cooking a thawed turkey. Cooking can be done in a roasting pan, but it is unnecessary.

If one thaws a turkey in a home refrigerator, there is a significant risk of raw juice with pathogens at high levels getting on refrigerator surfaces, other foods in the refrigerator, countertops, and sink, thus creating a hazard and a need for extensive cleaning and sanitizing.

The second benefit is that, because the breast has greater mass, it takes longer to thaw. Therefore, the thigh and leg are well cooked and tender, while the breast is not overcooked and dried out. The breast will cook to a juicy 160-to-165ºF endpoint without difficulty.

Summary

Cooking turkey from the frozen state produces an excellent, juicy, tender, and safe product. There is no need to remember to thaw the turkey four days ahead of time, and cooking a frozen turkey minimizes the risk of pathogen cross-contamination from juices from the raw bird.

To assure a quality and safe turkey, monitor the final temperature with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer, and always wash your hands before touching and handling the cooked turkey.

Reference: FDA. 2005. Food Code. U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Washington, D.C. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fc05-toc.html.

I think this is an excellent way to cook a turkey for the holidays or anytime. As Dr. Snyder states in the article, there won't be any danger of cross-contamination from dripping juices and the result is superb because of the physics of the turkey.

I did ask him about stuffing the turkey. He said that when the giblet bag is removed, the turkey can be stuffed. You may need to wear silicone gloves to protect your hands because they turkey will be hot. As always, don't overstuff the turkey and be sure to remove all of the stuffing when the bird is done. Take the temperature inside the middle of the stuffing: it should be 165 degrees F. And think about heating up the stuffing before putting it in the turkey according to the directions in the Stuffing Science article for more safety.

Leslie wrote and asked me about using this method to cook larger turkeys, 19-20 pound birds.

Dr. Snyder says, "the old data from the USDA would say add 2 hours more at most, so 5 hours becomes 7 hours. Do have a way of hot holding ready, in case it gets done a little ahead of schedule. It is okay to hold hot so long as it is above 130 F. If it goes below 130 F, then one still has a very safe 4 hours before there is any risk at all." I just cooked an 18-pound turkey and it took 7 hours on the nose. The turkey was moist and juicy. I didn't stuff it because the turkey was so large and I couldn't be sure the stuffing in the center would have reached a safe temperature.

I use this method when preparing turkeys. The result is a tender, juicy bird that is perfectly cooked. Every single time.