For the vast majority of us, carrying a beautifully bronzed turkey to the holiday table will start with buying with a frozen bird at the grocery store. And good golly, is that turkey frozen solid. Here's how to make sure your turkey is thawed right on schedule for your holiday meal.
Thawing Your Turkey in the Refrigerator
Letting your turkey thaw slowly in the refrigerator is by far the safest and easiest method, but it does take the longest. All you have to do is put the turkey in a pan to catch any drips and leave it in the fridge for a few days — it's totally hands-off. Allow about 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey; refer to the chart below to estimate how many days you should allow for your turkey to thaw. I like to tack on an extra day to the estimate just in case the turkey takes longer to thaw than expected.
If you're planning to brine your turkey, either in a brine solution or with a dry-brine, you can start this while it's still partially frozen. Also, it's fine to keep a completely thawed turkey in the fridge for up to two days, so you have a little wiggle room if you want to start thawing your turkey early.
Quick-Thawing Your Turkey
If you're running short on time, you can speed up the thawing process by submerging the frozen turkey, still in its packaging, in cold tap water. Change out the water every 30 minutes, and estimate roughly 30 minutes for every pound of turkey.
You can use this quick-thawing method in combination with the refrigerator method if you realize your turkey is still partially frozen on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning. Check the turkey each time you change the water to gauge how thawing is coming along; when thawed, the breast meat will feel soft and springy, the legs will move easily in the sockets, and the interior should no longer have ice crystals.
Turkeys thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately after thawing.
No Time to Thaw?
If your guests are due to arrive in a few hours and your turkey is still frozen solid, don't try to rush things by thawing your turkey in warm water, leaving it on the counter, blowing it with a hair dryer, or any other shortcuts. All of these methods put the turkey within the "danger zone" of 40°F to 140°F for longer than is safe, and your risk of food poisoning increases drastically.
Don't panic! It's actually completely safe to cook a frozen, or partially frozen turkey. Roast it at 325°F and increase the cooking time by about 50 percent if totally frozen, or about 25 percent if partially frozen. This works because the heat of the oven keeps the turkey out of the danger zone; as the turkey thaws, it also starts to cook. Remove the giblets as soon as they are thawed enough to do so, and season the turkey with salt, pepper, and other spices halfway through cooking. The turkey is done when it registers at least 165°F in all areas.
All facts in this article are based on the USDA guidelines for safe poultry cooking.
How To Thaw a Turkey
What You Need
1 frozen turkey, any size
Roasting pan with rack or other pan large enough to hold the turkey, for a refrigerator thaw
Large plastic bag, like a garbage bag or extra-large zip-top bag, for quick-thawing
Large pot or bucket, for quick-thawing
- Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan: This will catch any juices that may leak from the turkey's packaging as it thaws. The rack helps to elevate the turkey and provide circulation on all sides for even thawing, but isn't strictly necessary if you don't have one or are using a different pan.
- Transfer the turkey to the refrigerator: Make sure there is nothing touching or leaning against the turkey. Do not place anything else in the pan with the turkey; juices may leak from the turkey as it thaws and can contaminate anything else in the pan.
- Thaw the turkey completely in the fridge: Total thawing time will depend on the size of your turkey; refer to the chart below. If you have time, give yourself a day or two as a buffer just in case your turkey takes longer to thaw than expected. Thawed turkeys can be kept for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
Refrigerator Thawing Times
Allow about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey.
- 4- to 12-pound turkey — 1 to 3 days
- 12- to 16-pound turkey — 3 to 4 days
- 16- to 20-pound turkey — 4 to 5 days
- 20- to 24-pound turkey — 5 to 6 days
Quick-Thawing Your Turkey
- Place your turkey in a large plastic bag: The packaging on your turkey isn't necessarily waterproof. To prevent the turkey from getting waterlogged during this quick-thaw process, put it in a large plastic bag to protect it.
- Place the turkey in a large pot or bucket: Make sure the turkey fits inside the pot and can be fully submerged.
- Fill the pot with cold water. Do not use warm or hot water to speed thawing — this puts the turkey within the "danger zone" of 40°F to 140°F for longer than is safe, and your risk of food poisoning increases drastically. Weigh the turkey down with a pot or other heavy pan if it floats.
- Change the water every 30 minutes.
- Continue until the turkey is thawed: Refer to the chart below
Cold Water Thawing Times
Allow about 30 minutes for every pound of turkey.
- 4- to 12-pound turkey — 2 to 6 hours
- 12- to 16-pound turkey — 6 to 8 hours
- 16- to 20-pound turkey — 8 to 10 hours
- 20- to 24-pound turkey — 10 to 12 hours
How to Know When Your Turkey Is Thawed
- Check the breast meat: When thawed, the breast meat should feel pliable and springy.
- Check the legs: When thawed, the legs and wings should move loosely in their sockets.
- Check the inside: The inside should be free of ice crystals and you should be able to easily remove the packet of giblets.
No Time to Thaw? Cook It Frozen!
Yes, you can cook a frozen or partially frozen turkey in the oven! It is safe to do and makes a surprisingly good turkey. Cook the turkey at 325°F and increase the cooking time by about 50 percent if totally frozen, or by about 25 percent if your turkey is at least partially thawed. The turkey is done when it registers at least 165°F in all areas. Do not however deep-fry or grill a frozen turkey.