What to Do If Your Thanksgiving Turkey Is Still Frozen—and 3 Ways to Fix It

Follow these tips for how to deal with a frozen bird.

<p>Dem10/Getty Images</p>

Dem10/Getty Images

It happens. Whether you got a late start on shopping, or simply miscalculated how much time you might need to defrost a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving, the big bird for the big day is, yep, still frozen. The truth of the matter is, starting with a thawed turkey is key to making sure it cooks evenly and stays juicy all over, and it also cooks much faster than if roasting a bird from frozen– which is a big perk in and of itself when you need all the oven space you can get for the sides.  

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

Follow the tips below for how to defrost turkey, and if you’re looking at your turkey on Thanksgiving Day and thinking it’s very much still frozen, we’ve got tips for that too. There are a handful of (safe) ways to defrost a Thanksgiving turkey no matter if you’ve got a few days or a few hours. Whew, Thanksgiving is saved!

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How to Defrost a Turkey

There are three ways to safely defrost a turkey. One of the most common ways to achieve a perfectly thawed turkey is in the refrigerator, but plan ahead because it takes the longest (days!) and takes up a lot of space. 

Another go-to and quick-ish way to defrost a turkey is submerging it in cold water. It’s undeniably more hands-on since it requires changing the water every 30 minutes, but it’s the next best option if you missed the window to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator.  

And then comes the microwave. Utilizing this handy kitchen appliance is a decent option for smaller turkeys and it’s quick, all things considered.

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, it 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.

How to Defrost a Turkey in the Refrigerator

Even though it takes a few days to defrost a turkey in the refrigerator, it’s the most common method. And yes, you read that correctly, it takes days to defrost a turkey in the refrigerator. If you managed to plan this far ahead, we salute you. For a turkey that weighs up to 12 pounds, it can take up to three days to thaw. But it’s worth it. The turkey thaws at a constant safe and low temperature, and is guaranteed to be evenly thawed all over, which means even cooking.

Place the turkey in its original packaging in a rimmed container or roasting pan. This catches any juices that can carry potential bacteria and cross-contaminate other food– a must! Make sure the refrigerator is set to 40 degrees or below. A general rule of thumb is that it takes one day for every four pounds of frozen turkey to defrost. Once thawed, the turkey will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator.

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How to Defrost a Turkey Using Cold Water

Cold water is key here, and so is a decent-sized kitchen sink. This option is second-best to defrosting a turkey in the refrigerator, albeit more hands-on. Depending on the size of the turkey it can be a relatively quick ordeal of a few hours, or it can take 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, and that will clock in at around eight hours of thawing. This method requires more babysitting because of food safety. The water should remain cold at about 40 degrees, and to maintain this cold temperature it’s recommended to change the water every 30 minutes. Another reason why opting for a smaller bird or two is best. 

Place the turkey, still in its packaging, breast-side-down in a large sink or cooler, and submerge in cold water. Weigh it down if necessary to fully submerge it. 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. Allot 30 minutes for every pound of frozen turkey. For a 12-pound bird, that’s about six hours. Look out for any tears in the packaging, as the raw turkey juices will leak into the water and could contaminate whatever it touches. Clean the sink and its vicinity thoroughly if this is the case. The thawed turkey must be cooked immediately at this point.

How to Defrost a Turkey in the Microwave

If you missed the defrost-in-the-refrigerator train and time is running out, defrost the turkey in the microwave. The caveat is that it must be a small turkey, or turkey breasts or legs, because it’s got to fit in the microwave, and it must be cooked immediately after thawing. If you’ve got a massive bird, it’s not going to fit. This method works, it’s just one to leave as a last resort since some of the parts, like wings or drumsticks, might actually begin to cook while other parts of the turkey could still remain frozen. Microwaves are magical kitchen appliances, but can also be unpredictable. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests first checking the microwave owner’s manual to ensure the turkey fits, how many minutes per pound to set it to, and the power level needed. Remove all packaging from the turkey, including the giblets packet in the cavity, and place the turkey in a microwave-safe dish that’s deep enough to catch the juices. 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. It’s important to clean the microwave thoroughly after removing the turkey.

Can You Cook a Frozen Turkey?

The answer is yes, you can cook a frozen turkey. However, this only applies if you’re 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. Disclaimer: it will be hard to do any rubs, brines, 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. 

So no time to thaw? No problem. Taking food safety into account, it is safe to roast a turkey from frozen, according to the USDA. If it’s frozen solid, it will take 50 percent 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 very sure. The safe temperature you’re aiming for is 165 degrees.

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How to Tell if the Turkey Is Thawed

Don’t let the turkey trick you into thinking it’s fully defrosted. These telltale signs will let you know if the turkey is thoroughly thawed. 

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. 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.

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