How to Cook A Turkey When It's Still Frozen (Don't Panic!)

Thanksgiving Day Turkey in Oven
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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. If you want to skip to the part where I tell you what to do, scroll down to where it says "Here's What To Do."

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

* * *

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.

From football on TV to political arguments with random uncles, Thanksgiving offers a little bit of everything. Including the sense of never having quite enough time to get everything done.

Which is why, despite the allure of the Pinterest-perfect holiday, complete with handmade napkin rings and a locally-sourced, free-range turkey, the majority of us will sit down to a Thanksgiving turkey that was previously frozen.

And I want to make clear that both fresh and frozen are wonderful options. The locally-sourced one will be more expensive, and you'll need to find a farm near you and order in advance, but if you can swing all that, by all means do so.

My point, though, is that not everyone can, despite our best intentions.

Nor does everyone want to. There's something reassuring about a Thanksgiving dinner replete with favorite recipes that evoke childhood memories and connect us with family traditions.

(For me, for example, canned cranberry sauce, served in the shape of the can, is a guilty pleasure, and I'm known to enjoy it all year long.)

Anyway, if a frozen Butterball is where it's at, I give an enthusiastic two-thumbs-up.

Hopefully, it won't be frozen at the time you sit down, though, which brings me to the point of this article.

Properly Thawing a Frozen Turkey Can Take Days

Every year since 2008, I've been encouraging readers to plan ahead to make sure that they 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, I also happen to know that 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.

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

I often wonder what the folks searching for how to defrost a turkey on Thanksgiving morning end up doing.

Which is why I decided to write this article.

Because you CAN cook a turkey that's already frozen.

Remember, though, and this is important: At this point you are looking to salvage your Thanksgiving. Whatever dreams and aspirations you had for this turkey must now give way to cold, hard reality.

You'll have a turkey, all right, and it'll be fully cooked. But when you pull this off (and you will), you will have reason to 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.

***Here's What To Do***

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

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

If your turkey is larger or smaller, you'll want to modify the cooking times. A meat thermometer will help. But as a rough guide, figure 1.5 times whatever your cooking time would've been.

Second, preheat your oven to 325F. 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, causing it to steam rather than roast.

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 wrapper.

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. I recommend 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 175-180F, but for now it'll probably read 90-95F.

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 you definitely don't want to leave it in there.

At the three-hour mark the thigh reading should be around 140F, 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, I don't recommend making multiple holes in a turkey with thermometers. But these are not normal circumstances.

Ideally, therefore, you will have an instant-read thermometer in addition to your probe thermometer.

That way you can leave the one in the thigh while taking temperature readings elsewhere, like the breast, and within the body cavity.

Target Temperature is 165F

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

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

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

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.