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How to Thaw a Turkey Safely

Thawing a frozen turkey sounds like it should be obvious — but there’s a lot that can go wrong. Not thawing your turkey fully, bacteria growth due to improper temperatures, contamination of your turkey, and contamination of your food prep surfaces are all possible when you are trying to prep your bird. Follow this simple step-by-step guide for the safest way to thaw your bird.

roasted turkey on roasting rack

Best practices for thawing your turkey safely

If you are looking for a great Thanksgiving turkey recipe, here's a complete guide to cooking the perfect bird.

Thaw your turkey in the refrigerator

Slowly thawing your turkey in the refrigerator over the course of a few days is the best and safest way to thaw your turkey.

It may seem counterintuitive to thaw your turkey in the cold of your fridge, but keeping it refrigerated ensures that it never warms beyond a safe temperature, which can enable dangerous bacterial growth and can lead to food poisoning.

How long does it take to thaw a turkey in the refrigerator?

The amount of time it will take for your turkey to fully thaw in the refrigerator depends on how large your bird is. A very small bird that is less than 12lbs can thaw in 1-2 days, while a 24lb turkey will take as long as 6 days.

To make sure your turkey is ready for your holiday event, determine how long you will need to thaw it as soon as you buy it and set a calendar reminder on your phone for the day that you need to move it from the freezer to the fridge.

So, how long does it take to thaw a turkey? Here's a breakdown:

Turkey SizeThaw in Refrigerator
(set to 40F or below)
Thaw in Cold Water
(change water every 30 min.)
4 to 12 lbs.1 to 3 days2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 lbs.3 to 4 days6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 lbs.4 to 5 days8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 lbs.5 to 6 days10 to 12 hours

How to quickly thaw a turkey

With all of the commotion of the holidays, it’s easy to forget to pull your turkey in time for it to fully thaw in the refrigerator. The good news is if you’re reading this article you probably are planning ahead of time and will have plenty of time to safely thaw your turkey in the refrigerator for days before your Thanksgiving feast. 

The best way to quickly thaw a turkey is by submerging it in cool water. Again, it’s important to use cold water not hot water to ensure it’s kept at the proper temperature.

Plan on changing out the water every half-hour — that means no leaving it in the sink unattended overnight. It will still take several hours to thaw your turkey in the sink with constant monitoring, so it’s best to use this method the day before your feast and then leave it in the fridge overnight.

Common mistakes people make when thawing their turkey

The most common reasons people improperly thaw their turkey is because they simply don’t know what they are supposed to do, or if they are in a time crunch and are trying to cut corners.

DON’T: Thaw your turkey in the microwave

You might be used to using your microwave’s “defrost” setting when you’re behind on the evening’s dinner, but thawing your turkey in the microwave is a big no-no. Microwaves are unpredictable in terms of wattage and power, so using them to defrost meat often causes inconsistent thawing, and sometimes even partial-cooking. That means that some of your bird will be dry and tough, while other spots might turn out raw!

Luckily, standard microwaves are only large enough to even attempt to thaw the tiniest of turkeys.

DON’T: Leave your turkey out to thaw overnight

Leaving your turkey out of the fridge overnight is a quick way to thaw it, but risks bacterial growth and food poisoning. Even when thawing, meat should always be stored in the coldest part of your fridge, and once you reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit you begin to risk perishability. 

DON’T: Thaw your turkey in hot water

Similar to leaving your turkey out to thaw, thawing your bird in warm or hot water risks bacterial growth and food poisoning. Make sure that the water you use is very cold, and that you change the water every half hour.

DON’T: Thaw your turkey in a sink without sanitizing before and after

It’s possible to thaw your turkey in a bath of cool water, but this method risks contaminating either your turkey or anything else you place in your sink after. Make sure you thoroughly scrub your entire sink basin and drain with a food-safe disinfectant before AND after thawing your bird in the sink. This ensures that any bacteria in the sink from previous dirty dishes is killed, and the bacteria that can form from raw turkey doesn’t contaminate the colander of green beans you drain later on either.

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A Guide to Cooking a Thanksgiving Turkey + Recipe! | Southern Cravings

Monday 9th of August 2021

[…] For a complete tutorial, refer to this guide for thawing a turkey safely. […]

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