How NOT to Thaw a Frozen Turkey

Three Bad Ways (and One Good Way) to Defrost a Frozen Turkey

Raw turkey prepped for oven
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There are four ways to thaw a frozen turkey — and three of them are bad. Each one, for one reason or another, increases the likelihood of someone coming down with a case of food poisoning. And that's not the way you want to remember your Thanksgiving.

NOTE: If you're reading this on Thanksgiving morning, it's too late to defrost your turkey properly. Instead, see How to Cook a Still-Frozen Turkey. It's not a great way to cook a turkey, but it's the only choice you've got.

There's only one safe way to thaw a frozen turkey, and we'll get to it in a moment. But first, here are three ways NOT to do it:

1. Don't Thaw At Room Temperature

Like on the kitchen counter, or the dining room table, or in any other room of your house.

Besides being really weird to have a turkey defrosting in some random bedroom or dare I say it, the bathroom, thawing a turkey at room temperature is a terrible idea. Uncooked meat or poultry (including frozen) shouldn't be left at room temperature for more than two hours. Any longer than that and you're just begging for a case of food poisoning. So, don't even think about this one.

2. Don't Thaw In the Microwave

First of all, most microwaves are too small. If you have a turkey small enough to cram into your microwave, you don't really need to resort to this method in the first place. There's a better option for you a bit further down the page.

But even supposing you had some colossal microwave oven, this still would not be a very good plan. Given the number of different wattages, power levels, minutes per pound and other variables, the most likely outcome of microwave thawing is a turkey that's still frozen in some parts, while other parts are already cooked.

Not good. Stay away from this method.

3. Don't Thaw In Cold Water

It's technically possible to safely thaw a frozen turkey in a sink full of cold water, but it won't be easy. The problem is, you need to allow 30 minutes of thawing time for every pound of frozen bird, and you MUST keep the water at 40°F or colder the entire time. For a large turkey, that means monitoring the temperature with an instant-read thermometer and changing the water every half hour for 12 hours!

What's so special about 40°F? That's the lower limit of the Food Temperature Danger Zone. If the turkey gets any warmer than that, it gives dangerous bacteria a chance to multiply like crazy. So unless you're strictly committed to changing the water up to 24 times, don't bother with this method.

And by the way, whatever you do, don't try to thaw a turkey in HOT water. That's even worse. I saw someone recommending that in the comments section of some website, and I just about choked on my eggnog.

So that's three wrong ways to thaw a frozen turkey.

Now for the right way:

4. Do Thaw In the Refrigerator

Thawing in the refrigerator is the ONLY safe way to defrost a frozen turkey. Here's how to do it:

  • Make sure that your refrigerator is at 40°F or colder.
  • Leave the turkey in its original wrapper.
  • Place the bird on a tray or in a pan to collect any juices that leak out.
  • Keep it at the bottom of your fridge so that any leakage won't contaminate anything below.
  • Allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey.

Here are the basic weight guidelines for refrigerator thawing:

Turkey WeightThawing Time
Up to 12 lbs1-3 days
12 to 16 lbs3-4 days
16 to 20 lbs4-5 days
20 to 24 lbs5-6 days

As you can see, thawing a 20-pound turkey in the refrigerator will take the better part of a week. So plan ahead! A bit of preparation will ensure that you're not faced with a still-frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning.