One of the biggest mistakes cooks make when preparing a turkey for a holiday meal is not allowing enough time for a frozen turkey to defrost. With some turkeys approaching 20 pounds or more, they can take days to fully thaw at refrigerator temperatures. Using the cold water method is quicker, but still requires several hours. To avoid an undercooked bird—or eating at midnight—follow these rules of thumb to prepare for your next festive feast.
Defrosting in the Refrigerator
Thawing a large bird in the refrigerator will take a lot of forethought. In general, a frozen turkey will require approximately 24 hours of thawing for every five pounds of meat—so a 15-pound turkey will take three to four days. The temperature needs to be at or below 40 F to fully thaw the bird, so be sure your fridge is calibrated correctly. You will also need to have available space in the fridge the week of the holiday—often a hot commodity when preparing a multi-dish meal.
Defrosting in Cold Water
If you don’t have space in your fridge or haven’t planned far enough ahead, the cold water thawing technique will work in your favor. In cold water, a turkey will require approximately 30 minutes per pound to fully thaw, so that 15-pound bird will only take six to eight hours, versus three to four days. However, whereas you can place the turkey in the refrigerator and forget it, when thawing in cold water you do have to tend to it.
When thawing a turkey in cold water, you need to replace the water with fresh, cold water every 30 minutes to keep the water cold and avoid temperatures conducive to bacterial growth.
Defrosting Time Chart
Here is a handy chart with the approximate time needed to thaw a whole turkey either in the refrigerator (at or below 40 F) or in cold water.
If poultry and other meat are not thawed properly, you can run into some food dangers. Bacteria can grow in temperatures that are too warm—above 40 F—and cause food-bourne illnesses. Remember those days where frozen food would be left on the counter to thaw? Well, those days are long gone, now that we know what can be harboring inside the food.