How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey in Time for Thanksgiving Dinner

·3 min read

Unlike a whole chicken, Thanksgiving turkey is generally sold frozen solid. It basically comes as a giant block of ice, and it takes much longer to thaw than a smaller roast. So our best advice when it comes to defrosting your bird is to plan ahead — way ahead of the big meal. If you've never roasted a big bird before, you're in the right place (congrats!). Learning how to thaw frozen turkey safely is the first step to golden brown, juicy Thanksgiving turkey success.

The best way to thaw frozen turkey

According to the USDA, the safest way to thaw turkey is in the refrigerator. This is also our Test Kitchen’s preferred method because it’s the most hands-off and results in an evenly defrosted bird that’s ready to roast. So, how long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator? You want to allow 1 day in the fridge for every 4 pounds of turkey, so refrigerate a 12-pound bird for 3 days, a 20-pound bird for 5 days, and so on. Check out our turkey defrosting time calculator below for more estimates:

Photo credit: Laura Formisano
Photo credit: Laura Formisano

How to defrost a turkey in the refrigerator

Here’s our no-mess method for thawing a frozen-solid turkey in the refrigerator:

  1. Clear out a spot for the turkey on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so that any juices that leak won’t contaminate other items.

  2. Keep the turkey in its original, airtight packaging.

  3. Place the turkey in a large pan to catch any liquid that will accumulate as it thaws.

  4. Place the pan with the frozen turkey in your refrigerator and allow to thaw 1 day for every 4 pounds of bird.

How do you quickly thaw a frozen turkey?

So you've spent a lot of time prepping Thanksgiving side dishes and planning your perfect Thanksgiving pie, and pulling that bird out of the freezer just slipped your mind. Stay calm — if you’re pressed for time, you can quickly thaw frozen turkey using the cold water method, it’s just a little bit more work and not very practical for larger birds. Here’s how it’s done:

Photo credit: Laura Formisano
Photo credit: Laura Formisano
  1. Just like the refrigerator method, it’s important to keep the turkey in its original, airtight packaging.

  2. Submerge the turkey in a sink or cooler full of cold water (water should be below 40°F).

  3. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the bird at a safe temperature.

  4. It takes about 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound, or about 2 hours per every 4 pounds. So, a 12 pound turkey will take about 6 hours to thaw in cold water.

  5. Unlike the refrigerator method, a thawed turkey using this method must be cooked immediately after it's defrosted.

Can you leave a turkey out to thaw overnight?

Short answer? No. Thawing a turkey on the counter overnight at room temperature is not recommended by the USDA or us, your friendly Test Kitchen helpers. As soon as a frozen turkey begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow, and room temperature is the perfect environment for that icky stuff to multiply.

So remember: Plan ahead so you can thaw your turkey in the refrigerator for 1 day per every 4 pounds. Then get ready to serve your best Thanksgiving dinner ever — with that beautifully bronzed bird as your stunning centerpiece.

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