Why You Should *Never* Thaw a Turkey with Warm Water

updated Nov 13, 2019
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Don't do this.

If your Thanksgiving turkey starts out frozen (as many do), one of the trickiest things is remembering just how long this big bird takes to thaw.

And if you’ve ever been in the position of obsessively checking how frozen it still is as the time inches closer and closer to when it needs to go in the oven, you know that this can be one of the most stressful parts of the holiday. Because what do you do when it’s time to start cooking but the turkey is still frozen?

It can feel awfully tempting to speed the thawing process along with the help of some warm water to take the chill off the icy bird. Don’t do it, though. Here’s why it’s never safe to thaw a turkey with warm water, plus the safest method to thaw a turkey, and what to do if your turkey is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning.

Your Frozen Turkey Doesn’t Like Warm Water

When it comes to thawing turkey (or any meat, for that matter!), it’s never safe to use warm water in an attempt to speed things along. When thawing a whole turkey, our goal is to move it through the temperature danger zone of 40°F to 140°F as quickly as possible. This is the range where harmful bacteria and toxins can accumulate to harmful levels if the food is left for too long (read more about danger zone, and food safety, here).

The problem with using warm water is that even while the center of the turkey may still be frozen, the warm water pushes the outer layer of the turkey into the temperature danger zone, increasing the risk of bacteria growth and food borne illness. And the last thing you want after your holiday gathering is everyone getting sick.

The Safest Method for Thawing a Turkey

The safest way to thaw a turkey, and the one recommended by the USDA, is in the refrigerator. As long as your fridge is set to the right temperature, it will let the meat thaw while preventing the growth of harmful bacteria on the meat.

The trouble, of course, is that it can take several days, so you need to plan ahead. As a rule of thumb, plan on 24 hours for every four to five pounds of meat, when thawing turkey in the refrigerator. For example, if you’re cooking a 16-pound turkey, you’ll want to transfer it from the freezer to the fridge at least four full days before you plan to cook it. Once it’s fully thawed, you can keep the turkey in the fridge for up to two days before cooking it.

If you’re short on time, you can thaw your turkey a little faster in a cold water bath. To do this, put the turkey in your sink or a large pot, and fill with cold water until the turkey is submerged. You’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes, and it will take about 30 minutes per pound, so this is not a lightning-fast method. But if you have, say, at least eight hours before you need to cook your 16-pound turkey, this method will work.

No Time to Thaw?

If you don’t have the time to thaw or finish thawing the turkey, do not panic. There’s an easy and safe solution for you: You can cook the turkey from frozen. Yes, really! I know it sounds completely improbable — even slightly alarming, but it’s safe, and the USDA agrees. You simply need to increase the cook time by 50 percent. So this strategy works best if it’s a day or two before Thanksgiving, and you realize you’ve forgotten to thaw the turkey. Don’t try to pre-thaw it. Just plan around needing to let it be in the oven a little longer — there’s a handy chart with sizes and times in the article linked below.

A quick note: Don’t try to deep-fry or grill a frozen turkey. Oven-roasting is the only truly safe method here. The heat of the oven keeps the outside toasty, and the meat cooks through as it thaws.