What to Do If Your Thanksgiving Turkey Is Still Frozen

Don't panic if the turkey didn't thaw in time. You can still save Thanksgiving dinner.

<p>Dem10/Getty Images</p>

Dem10/Getty Images

Whether you got a late start on turkey shopping or simply miscalculated how much time you need to thaw a turkey, sometimes you may find the big bird for the big day is, yep, still frozen. Don't worry: We have a handful of (safe) ways to defrost a turkey—whether you've got a few days or a few hours. Follow the tips below and learn what to do if your Thanksgiving turkey is still frozen (or partially frozen).

Why Defrosting a Turkey Is Important

The truth is that starting with a thawed turkey is critical to ensuring it cooks evenly and stays juicy all over. It also cooks much faster when defrosted than if roasting a bird that's frozen—which is a big perk in and of itself when you need all the oven space you can get for those delicious Thanksgiving sides.

And if you're feeling adventurous and are planning a fried turkey for Thanksgiving, a thawed bird is non-negotiable. For significant safety reasons (read: major injury-inducing oil splatters or burns), the turkey must be completely defrosted before it goes into a giant vat of oil.

How to Defrost a Turkey

There are three ways to safely defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, submerged in cold water, or the microwave. Whatever you do, don’t panic and try to thaw the turkey in hot water. It will not speed things up, and in fact, it’s only a recipe for disaster.

Simply put, using hot water for defrosting can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses and bacteria growth. The same risks apply to thawing a turkey at room temperature on the counter or letting it sit outside to defrost. The risks far outweigh any benefits.

Defrosting a Turkey in the Refrigerator

One of the most common ways to achieve a perfectly thawed turkey is in the refrigerator. This method requires some planning because it takes the longest (days!) and uses up lots of space. Yes, you read that correctly: It takes days to defrost a turkey in the refrigerator.

For a turkey that weighs up to 12 pounds, it can take up to three days to thaw. A general rule of thumb is that it takes one day for every four pounds of frozen turkey to defrost. But it's worth it.

The turkey thaws at a constant, safe, and low temperature and is guaranteed to be evenly defrosted, which means even cooking. Here's how to thaw a turkey in the refrigerator:

  1. Keep the turkey in its packaging. Place the turkey in a rimmed container or roasting pan, keeping it in its original packaging. This catches any juices that can carry potential bacteria and cross-contaminate other food—a must!

  2. Check the refrigerator's temperature. Make sure your fridge is set to 40 degrees or below. If it's too warm, the turkey won't defrost properly, and you risk bacteria growth.

  3. Keep turkey in the fridge until ready to cook. Once thawed, the turkey will last for up to two days in the fridge. So, count backward from Thanksgiving to accurately time when to begin defrosting the turkey.

Defrosting a Turkey in Cold Water

Another common (quick-ish) way to defrost a turkey is by submerging it in cold water. It's undeniably a more hands-on process since it requires changing the water to keep it cold (due to food safety), but it's the next best option if you miss the window to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator.


Using cold water is vital, as is a decent-sized kitchen sink. The water should remain cold at about 40 degrees; to maintain this cold temperature, the water should be changed every 30 minutes.

Depending on the size of the bird, it can be a relatively quick ordeal to thaw a turkey in cold water, ranging from a few hours up to 12 hours. But if you've been keeping up with the best way to cook a turkey, you know it's best not to cook a giant bird. A 15-pound turkey should be the max, which clocks in at around eight hours of thawing in cold water. (Another reason why opting for a smaller bird or two is best.)

Follow these steps for thawing a turkey in cold water:

  1. Submerge the turkey. Place the bird—still in its original packaging—breast-side-down in a large sink or cooler full of cold water. Weigh it down if necessary to fully submerge it.

  2. Check the water's temperature. Feel or check the temperature of the water with an instant-read thermometer every 30 minutes, and change the water if it's above 40 degrees.

  3. Wait for the turkey to thaw. Allot 30 minutes for every pound of frozen turkey. For a 12-pound bird, that's about six hours of defrost time.

  4. Inspect the packaging. Look out for any tears in the packaging, as the raw turkey juices could leak into the water and contaminate whatever it touches. Clean the sink and its vicinity thoroughly if this occurs. The thawed turkey must be cooked immediately at this point.

Defrosting a Turkey in the Microwave

If you missed the defrost-in-the-refrigerator train and time is running out, defrost your turkey in the microwave. Utilizing this handy kitchen appliance is a decent option for smaller turkeys, and it's a quick process.

The caveat is that it must be a small turkey (or turkey breasts or legs) because it needs to fit in the microwave. Plus, it must be cooked immediately after thawing. If you've got a massive bird, it won't work.

Though this method works, it's best to leave it as a last resort since some turkey parts, like wings or drumsticks, might begin to cook while others could remain frozen. Microwaves are magical kitchen appliances, but they can also be unpredictable.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests first checking the microwave owner's manual to ensure the turkey fits and find how many minutes per pound to set it to, plus the required power level. Then, here's what you'll need to do to defrost your turkey in the microwave:

  1. Prepare the turkey. Remove all packaging from the turkey, including the giblets packet that's inside the cavity, and place the turkey in a microwave-safe dish deep enough to catch the juices.

  2. Set the microwave to defrost. Use the defrost function per weight of the turkey, and rotate and flip it often. It takes about six minutes per pound for a turkey to thaw completely, which is a little over an hour for a 12-pound turkey.

  3. Remove and clean the microwave. It's important to clean the microwave thoroughly after removing the turkey. This helps avoid cross-contamination with future food that goes into the appliance.

Can You Cook a Frozen Turkey?

The answer is yes, you can cook a frozen turkey. However, this only applies when roasting it. Remember, it's a big NO if you're going for fried turkey, as the bird would have to be completely defrosted to avoid any injuries.


It will be difficult to try a brining technique or add any rubs or seasoning under the skin before the turkey goes in the oven. Once the turkey has thawed on the exterior (about halfway through cooking), brush it with butter and season it with salt and pepper or your preferred spice rub.

Taking food safety into account, it is safe to roast a turkey that's still frozen, according to the USDA. If it's frozen solid, it will take 50% longer to cook than starting with a thawed turkey (which is still preferable). Even if the turkey is partially frozen, it will still take longer to cook, so it's important to keep an instant-read thermometer handy and check the temperature in various spots, always avoiding the bone since it retains heat and can produce a miscalculated reading.

To check the temperature of the turkey, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh and breast (and at a few other places to be absolutely sure). The safe temperature you're aiming for is 165 degrees.

How to Tell if the Turkey Is Thawed

Don't let the turkey trick you into thinking it's fully defrosted. Look for these telltale signs to know if the turkey is thoroughly thawed.

  • Inspect the cavity. After following the time guidelines for thawing a turkey (no matter the method), remove the packaging and place your hand in the cavity. Feel around the cavity and breast bone—it should not feel frozen, and the breast meat should feel soft.

  • Look for resistance. Check that the legs and wings are easy to move around and don't feel stiff when gently pulling and rotating; if there's significant resistance, the turkey needs more time to defrost.

  • Take its temperature. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the leg or breast. If the temperature is below 32 degrees, the turkey is still frozen and needs more time to thaw.

Related: How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey 5 Different Ways—Including Roasted, Deep-Fried, and More

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