How To Cook a Frozen Turkey

How To Cook a Frozen Turkey

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Emma Christensen
Nov 7, 2016
(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Yes, you really can cook a frozen turkey. Yes, it sounds completely improbable — even slightly alarming. But against all odds, yes, it works. If you find yourself staring down a turkey that's still frozen solid on Thanksgiving morning and you're wondering how in the world you're going to get dinner on the table in a few hours, there's hope. Here's how to go from frozen to golden without skipping a beat.

How To Cook a Frozen Turkey: Watch the Video

Cooking a Frozen Turkey

I have no tricks up my sleeve here; this method is as straightforward as they come. All we're doing is putting the frozen turkey on a roasting rack and throwing it in the oven at 325°F. From rock-solid frozen, your turkey will take about 50 percent longer to cook than normal. For instance, a 14-pound frozen turkey will take about 5 3/4 hours to cook — refer to the chart below for more estimated cooking times. You can also cook a partially thawed turkey; the estimated cooking times will be slightly less than for a frozen turkey.

The turkey cooks as it thaws. The wings and drumsticks will cook the fastest since they're relatively small and are on the outside of the turkey, while the big, thick muscle on the breast will take the longest. It also cooks from the outside in, so when you check the temperature during cooking, the meat close to the surface might be done cooking, while the meat closer to the bone will still be cool. Be sure to check the turkey's temperature at multiple places and at multiple depths; when everything is above 165°F, you're ready to eat.

You won't be able to do any fancy rubs, brines, or other days-in-advance prep to your turkey — you have to keep things pretty basic with a frozen turkey. Once the outside of the turkey is thawed, partway through cooking, you can brush it with butter (or another sauce!) and rub it with salt, pepper, and any other spices you like.

Estimated Cooking Times for Frozen Turkeys

  • 8- to 12-pound turkey: 4 to 4 1/2 hours
  • 12- to 14-pound turkey: 4 1/2 to 5 3/4 hours
  • 14- to 18-pound turkey: 5 3/4 to 6 1/4 hours
  • 18- to 20-pound turkey: 6 1/4 to 6 3/4 hours
  • 20- to 24-pound turkey: 6 3/4 to 7 1/2 hours

Partially thawed turkeys will have shorter cooking times.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

On Food Safety When Cooking a Frozen Turkey

Yes, cooking a turkey from frozen or partially frozen is totally safe and is even USDA-approved. Whenever we're thawing and cooking turkeys, our goal is to move it through the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F as quickly as possible. This is because, within this range, harmful bacteria and toxins can accumulate to harmful levels if the food is left for too long (longer than two hours).

When cooking a frozen turkey, no part of the turkey is within the temperature danger zone for longer than is safe, even though the total cooking time is longer. The heat of the oven keeps the outside toasty, and the meat cooks through as it thaws. When all parts of the turkey register 165°F, the turkey is ready. Be sure to double-check the temperature at multiple depths within the meat since the interior will be the last to thaw and cook through.

Oven-roasting is the only truly safe way to cook a frozen turkey. Do NOT deep-fry or grill a frozen turkey.

Also, it's best to cook the stuffing separately. A stuffed turkey slows down the cooking process even further, and since the stuffing has to cook to 165°F as well as the meat, the turkey meat will overcook and become dry before the stuffing is ready.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

But How Does It Taste?

Now, here is the million-dollar question: Sure, you can cook a frozen turkey, but is it anything you want to eat? Actually, yes! After cooking a few of these guys, I can verify that frozen turkey is really quite good. It might not be the best Thanksgiving turkey you'll ever eat, but for a last-minute Hail Mary that gets your holiday dinner on the table, I think you'll be mighty pleased.

With a regular, thawed turkey, the breast meat tends to cook the most quickly, and often becomes overcooked and dry while you wait for the thighs and drumsticks to catch up. This is reversed with a frozen turkey — the big, dense breast meat takes much longer to thaw and cook than the smaller thighs and drumsticks. Since the breast meat is the last to finish cooking, it actually stays quite moist. Even though the legs and thighs cook faster, the dark meat can handle a little extra cooking and still stay quite moist.

Don't be alarmed if the top inch or so of the breast meat hits 165°F and quickly shoots upward, even while the meat below it is still stubbornly below temperature. I found that the meat as a whole stayed surprisingly moist, even when technically overcooked. My suspicion is that the evaporating liquids from deep within the meat help keep the upper layers from drying completely out.

And if you find that your turkey does wind up a touch on the dry side, that's where gravy picks up the slack.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Don't Forget to Remove the Giblets

Do not try to remove the giblets before cooking — the turkey is just too solidly frozen. Partway through cooking, the turkey should have thawed enough that you'll be able to remove the giblets from the neck cavity. If your giblets, or the neck, are in the inside cavity of the turkey, it may take a little longer until they're thawed enough to remove.

If your giblets are wrapped in plastic, be very careful that the plastic doesn't get so hot that it starts to melt. Melted plastic does not make for tasty turkey on Thanksgiving.

Yes, You Absolutely Need a Good Thermometer

You absolutely need to use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey when using this method. The outside may seem totally done and the juices might even run clear, but the inner layers might still be frozen or under-temperature. Make sure you have a thermometer on hand, or send someone out to the store to get one.

I also highly recommend picking up a digital thermometer if you don't have one. These are much more accurate, easier to read, and take the temperature much more quickly than a regular meat thermometer. With this frozen turkey, I feel that being able to quickly and accurately read the temperature in multiple places around the turkey is important.

The Advantages of Cooking a Frozen Turkey

One bonus to this turkey-cooking method is that you can make a truly phenomenal gravy. The long cooking means all those drippings get really dark and caramelized, adding savory depth and richness to the finished gravy. If the pan starts looking dry or if the drippings seem to be starting to burn, just pour a cup of water or broth into the pan to simmer while the turkey cooks.

On the other hand, one downside to this method is that it ties up your oven for several hours right when you probably need it the most. We have some help for that — take a look at our round-up of stovetop Thanksgiving side dishes for ways to cook your favorite sides while the oven is occupied:

Get 5 stovetop side dish recipes: 5 Stovetop Sides for Thanksgiving

How To Cook a Frozen Turkey

Makes 1 turkey

What You Need

Ingredients
1 frozen or partially thawed turkey
Melted butter
Salt
Pepper

Equipment
Roasting pan
Roasting rack
Pastry brush

Estimated Cooking Times for Frozen Turkeys

  • 8- to 12-pound turkey: 4 to 4 1/2 hours
  • 12- to 14-pound turkey: 4 1/2 to 5 3/4 hours
  • 14- to 18-pound turkey: 5 3/4 to 6 1/4 hours
  • 18- to 20-pound turkey: 6 1/4 to 6 3/4 hours
  • 20- to 24-pound turkey: 6 3/4 to 7 1/2 hours

Partially thawed turkeys will have shorter cooking times.

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F. Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven.
  2. Place the turkey in the roasting pan: Unwrap the turkey and place it on top of a roasting rack inside a roasting pan. Don't try to remove the giblets or season the turkey right now.
  3. Roast for 2 1/2 hours. Try not to open the oven door or let out too much heat. After 2 1/2 hours, your turkey should just be starting to turn golden.
  4. Check the temperature: This temperature check is just to get a reference point for how quickly the turkey is cooking. At this point, the breast and thighs will likely be in the low-100°F range.
  5. Remove the giblets: The turkey should be thawed enough at this point that you can remove any trussing mechanisms (although most are safe for roasting in the oven; check the turkey's packaging for information). Check the neck cavity and remove the bag of giblets if you see it. Check the cavity of the turkey for the neck or giblets, and remove them if you can. If you can't get to the giblets, or if the giblets are still frozen inside the turkey's cavity, continue roasting, but check every 30 minutes to see if you can remove the giblets. Be careful — the turkey is still mostly frozen, but the juices around the surface are hot.
  6. Tuck the wings behind the turkey: You can also leave them untucked — either way is fine.
  7. Season the turkey: Brush the turkey with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you'd like to use. Rub in the spices with your fingers.
  8. Tip the turkey to pour out any juices: Juices tend to collect inside the cavity of the turkey as they melt. Lift the roasting rack and tilt the turkey so these juices pour out into the pan.
  9. Continue roasting: Refer to the chart above for estimated total roasting times. Check the temperature in the breast and thigh meat every hour or so to gauge how fast it's cooking, and tilt the pan to pour out any juices. Brush the turkey with more butter if you'd like. If the skin over the breasts is browning more than you like, cover loosely with foil. If the pan starts looking very dry or if the drippings start looking burnt, add a few cups of water or broth.
  10. Cook until the turkey registers at least 165°F in all areas: The breast meat is the thickest part of the turkey and will cook the slowest. The middle of the turkey, closest to the bone, will also be the last to cook through; the temperature may be well above 165°F close to the surface, but below temperature deeper in the meat. Make sure you take the temperature in multiple places and also at multiple depths in the meat to be sure you're getting an accurate temperature reading throughout. (Just be sure not to hit the bone, which will give you a false temperature.)
  11. Rest the turkey for 30 minutes.
  12. Carve the turkey and serve.

Recipe Notes

  • You can also roast a partially thawed turkey.
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