What to Do If Your Turkey Is Still Frozen

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving. Your turkey is still a solid brick of ice. Your entire extended family is arriving in less than three hours. Quick, what do you do? First of all, don’t panic — you have some options.

What Not to Do

First, let’s talk about what you shouldn’t do, no matter how tempted you may be. Do not leave your turkey on the counter to thaw for a few hours, submerge it in hot water, wrap it with a heating pad, blast it with a hair dryer, or take any other shortcuts on thawing. The risk of giving you and your guests food poisoning is just too great.

If any part of the turkey is within the temperature “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F for longer than two hours, the likelihood increases that it has developed unsafe levels of bacteria and related toxins. This means that even if the inside of your turkey is still frozen, once the outside thaws to above 40°F, it’s in the danger zone. Even cooking your turkey thoroughly in the oven doesn’t guarantee that the turkey is safe to eat — most bacteria will be destroyed, but the illness-causing toxins remain.

There are times when you can bend the food safety rules and times when you shouldn’t. This is just one of those times when it’s not worth the risk.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

If You Have a Few Hours to Spare

The best way to thaw a turkey is to leave it in the fridge for a few days, but if you’re reading this, then that option has probably passed you by. Not to worry — you can also thaw your turkey more quickly by submerging it in cold water.

First, make sure you’re using cold tap water — not warm or hot. The cold water will thaw your turkey, but keep it out of the temperature danger zone. Next, make sure your turkey is totally submerged in the water. This is both so it will thaw evenly and also to make sure everything stays chilled and safe. If your turkey doesn’t fit in your sink or biggest pot, just be sure to flip it frequently.

Last but not least, change out the water every 30 minutes. This is so the water doesn’t warm up to room temperature, which would (you guessed it!) put the turkey in the danger zone.

Thawed this way in cold water, estimate roughly 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. This can take a while for a large turkey, so be sure to plan the rest of your meal — and the dinner bell — accordingly. Personally, I like this method the best if my turkey has already done some thawing in the fridge but is still partially frozen. The cold water helps it finish thawing the rest of the way time for dinner.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

If There’s No Time to Thaw

If you’re up against the clock and have no time left for even the “quick” cold-water thaw, then just cook the turkey as it is. It’s perfectly safe to cook a frozen or partially frozen turkey — you just need to allow some extra cooking time.

Estimate 50 percent longer cooking time for a completely frozen turkey and around 25 percent longer for a partially frozen turkey. In either case, check the temperature and cook the turkey until it registers 165°F in both the breast and the thigh.

The advantage of cooking a frozen turkey is that you still get to sit down to dinner in a timely manner with none the wiser for your turkey snafu earlier in the day. The disadvantage is that you’re stuck with a fairly basic roast turkey — no brining, deep-frying, or any other fancy turkey techniques here. You can, however, brush the turkey with butter and rub it with salt, pepper, and spices partway through cooking to give it some color and flavor.

But even when cooking a frozen turkey, you can still count on plenty of crispy skin and tender meat, and most importantly, Thanksgiving is saved.