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.
How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey
There is only one safe, easy and good way to thaw a frozen turkey, and that is in the refrigerator.
It's safe because it stays cold the whole time, thus preventing the growth of dangerous bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
It's easy because you don't have to do anything. The turkey simply sits in the fridge and thaws all by itself.
There are a couple of other methods that might be technically safe. But one of them is not easy, and the other one is not good—as in, it will do bad things to your turkey, and make you wish you had used a different technique.
But first, let's talk about the method you should use for thawing a frozen turkey:
1. Thaw It in the Refrigerator
Thawing in the refrigerator is the ONLY recommended way to defrost a frozen turkey. For it to work, however, you'll need plenty of time: 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird. A large turkey, say, 15 to 20 pounds, will need to spend 4 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
Which means you'll have to plan ahead. If you can manage that, you'll be golden. (And your turkey will be golden-brown and delicious.)
Here's how to do it:
- Make sure that your refrigerator is at 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 (see the full chart a little ways below).
It's pretty straightforward. But if you haven't got enough time, and don't want to try roasting it while it's still frozen, you can always try the cold water method. But be prepared to work:
2. Thaw It in Cold Water
It's 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 40 F or colder the entire time.
That means monitoring the temperature with an instant-read thermometer and changing the water every half hour. Now, ring in when you've figured out the problem with using this method...
Ding! That's right! For a very large turkey, like a 20-pounder, which can take ten hours or more to defrost, you would have to change the water every thirty minutes for ten hours. That's twenty water changes!
Aside from the fact that you have better things to do with your time, the major drawback to this method is that after two or three hours, you'll slack off and stop changing the water, and wind up with a salmonella bomb soaking in your kitchen sink.
Moreover, you can't necessarily merely add fresh water from the tap; the water needs to be colder than 40 F.
If the water coming out of your tap is warmer than that, you'll have to add ice to lower the temperature.
Also, you've got to make sure the turkey remains completely submerged. If it floats (and it will), you'll need to weigh it down. And if your sink is too small, this method won't work.
And whatever you do, don't try to thaw a turkey in HOT water.
Here's a time chart to help you compare thawing times using the refrigerator and cold-water methods:
|Turkey Weight||Thawing Time|
|Up to 12 lbs||1 to 3 days||2 to 6 hours|
|12 to 16 lbs||3 to 4 days||6 to 8 hours|
|16 to 20 lbs||4 to 5 days||8 to 10 hours|
|20 to 24 lbs||5 to 6 days||10 to 12 hours|
Next, let's look at another technique—one that might be technically "safe" as far as keeping the turkey out of the temperature danger zone, but will not be good.
3. Thaw It in the Microwave
Yes, technically your turkey will be thawed, if that's all you care about. Like if you're planning to use it as a soccer ball; or maybe cook it and feed it to your dogs.
But if you're actually planning to serve it to people, this is absolutely not a good method to use. 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.
That's if you can even fit a turkey in your microwave, which, obviously, you can't. Grab a tape measure right now, and go measure the opening of your microwave. It's about 8 inches high, right? There is no way you are going to fit a frozen turkey through an 8-inch opening.
And even if you can (like if you have a 7-inch turkey), you don't need to resort to this method in the first place. You're better off using the cold water technique. Your tiny turkey will be thawed in a couple of hours.
Finally, let's mention a technique you should not use under any circumstances...
4. DON'T Thaw At Room Temperature
Thawing a frozen turkey on the kitchen counter, or the dining room table, or in any other room of your house, is a no-no.
Besides the fact that it is, let us say, unseemly to defrost a Thanksgiving turkey in some random bedroom (to say nothing of the bathroom), thawing a turkey at room temperature is a terrible practice. 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.
Be Smart, Be Safe: Plan Ahead
So that's all there is to it. As you can see, thawing a 20-pound turkey in the refrigerator can 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.
(But again, even if that happens, here's what to do.)