Learning how to thaw frozen turkey safely is the first step to deliciously golden brown, perfectly moist Thanksgiving turkey success. The turkey should be completely defrosted and, ideally, brined (psst… learn how to brine turkey for your best bird yet) before roasting. But our most important words of advice when it comes to defrosting your bird? Plan ahead — way ahead.
The best way to thaw frozen turkey
According to the USDA, the safest way to thaw turkey is in the refrigerator. This is also our Test Kitchen’s preferred method because it’s the most hands-off and results in an evenly defrosted bird that’s ready to roast. So, how long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator? You want to allow 1 day in the fridge for every 4 pounds of turkey, so refrigerate a 12-pound bird for 3 days, a 20-pound bird for 5 days, and so on. Check out our turkey defrosting time calculator below for the best estimate for your bird:
How to defrost a turkey in the refrigerator
Here’s our no-mess method for thawing a frozen-solid turkey in the refrigerator:
- Keep the turkey in its original, airtight packaging.
- Place the turkey in a large pan to catch any liquid that will melt from the turkey as it thaws.
- Clear out a spot for the turkey on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so that any juices that leak won’t contaminate other items.
- Place the pan with the frozen turkey in your refrigerator and allow to thaw 1 day for every 4 pounds of bird.
How do you quickly thaw a frozen turkey?
We get it — you've spent a lot of time prepping Thanksgiving side dishes and planning your perfect Thanksgiving pie, and pulling that bird out of the freezer just slipped your holiday-frenzied mind. Stay calm — if you’re pressed for time, you can quickly thaw frozen turkey using the cold water method, it’s just a little bit more work and not very practical for larger birds. Here’s how it’s done:
- Just like the refrigerator method, it’s important to keep the turkey in its original, airtight packaging.
- Submerge the turkey in a sink or cooler full of cold water (water should be below 40°F).
- Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the bird at a safe temperature.
- It takes about 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound, or about 2 hours per every 4 pounds. So, a 12 pound turkey will take about 6 hours to thaw in cold water.
- Unlike the refrigerator method, a thawed turkey using this method must be cooked immediately after it's defrosted.
Can you leave a turkey out to thaw overnight?
Short answer? No. Thawing a turkey on the counter overnight at room temperature is not recommended by the USDA or us, your friendly Test Kitchen helpers. As soon as a frozen turkey begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow, and room temperature is the perfect environment for that icky stuff to multiply.
So remember: Plan ahead so you can thaw your turkey in the refrigerator for 24 hours per every 4 pounds. Then get ready to serve your best Thanksgiving dinner ever — with that beautifully bronzed bird as your stunning centerpiece.
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