How to Safely Thaw a Whole Turkey

Turkey in Refrigerator
Turkey in Refrigerator. Michael Pohuski /Photolibrary[/link]

Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. If the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40 F, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again unless proper thawing methods are used.

It's important to remember that a package of frozen meat or poultry left to thaw on the countertop for more than 2 hours is not safe. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food will be between 40 and 140 F.

Harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly in this temperature "danger zone."

Safely defrost a whole turkey in any one of three ways: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave oven.

When using the refrigerator or cold water method of thawing, cook  the turkey within 2 to 4 days. When thawing in the microwave, use immediately.

Thawing a Whole Frozen Turkey

As soon as you get the turkey home from the market, store it in the freezer until you are ready to defrost it. A whole turkey can be stored for up to 1 year at 0 F or below.

Refrigerator Thawing

Plan on about 24 hours for every 5 pounds in at 40 F in the refrigerator. Keep the turkey in its wrapper and place it on a platter or pan in the refrigerator breast side up.

Refrigerator Thawing Times for Whole Turkey

  • 8 to 12 pounds..........1 to 2 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds..........2 to 3 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds..........3 to 4 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds..........4 to 5 days

    Refrigerator Thawing Time for Whole Turkey Breast

    • 3 to 9 pounds..........1 1/2 to 2 days

    Note: Food defrosted in the refrigerator may be refrozen, but there might be some loss of quality.

    Cold Water Thawing

    Allow at least 30 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey immersed in cold water.

    Be sure the turkey is in well wrapped in leak-proof packaging.

    Use a container (or clean sink) which can hold the turkey with enough cold water to completely cover it. Submerge the turkey, breast side down, in the cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.

    Cold Water Thawing Times for Whole Turkey

    • 8 to 12 pounds...........4 to 6 hours
    • 12 to 16 pounds...........6 to 8 hours
    • 16 to 20 pounds.........8 to 10 hours
    • 20 to 24 pounds.......10 to 12 hours

    Cold Water Thawing Time for Whole Turkey Breast

    • 3 to 9 pounds...........3 to 5 hours

    Microwave Thawing

    Follow the oven manufacturer's instructions if thawing a turkey in the microwave oven. Because some parts of the turkey may become warm and partially cooked, plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing in the microwave.

    What Not to Thaw

    Do not thaw frozen stuffed turkeys, frozen "ready to roast" breast roasts or boneless roasts.