How To Safely Thaw Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Learn the best way to thaw a turkey—and mistakes you should never (ever) make.

Many of us buy frozen turkeys because they are the easiest to find in most grocery stores. They're often cheaper, too. So when it comes time to thaw that big bird before the big day, food safety matters more than anything. Plan ahead and calculate the timing. Here's how to safely thaw your Thanksgiving turkey ahead of the feast.

Thanksgiving turkeys

Courtesy of Williams Sonoma

How Long to Thaw a Frozen Turkey

That will depend on the method you want to use—and how much time you can invest.

The preferred method for thawing a frozen turkey is to leave it in the fridge 24 hours for every four pounds. That means a 12-pound bird needs about three days to fully thaw.

The fastest method, thawing a turkey in the microwave, may not be the easiest. If you happen to have a microwave large enough, it can be done—and quickly—but comes with some costs. More on that below.

How to Thaw Turkey in the Refrigerator

The best thawing option for a frozen turkey is the refrigerator. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises that this is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature.

Allow at least one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey. Keep the turkey in its original unopened wrapper and place it breast-side up on a tray to catch the drips. Use the turkey within two days of thawing.

Pros: It's safe, easy, and doesn't require any attention.
Con: It takes several days.

If you're planning to dry or wet brine the turkey, factor that into your thawing time, too. You'll likely need a day after the turkey has completely thawed to complete a brine.

How to Thaw Turkey in Cold Water

Another safe option is cold water thawing. Allow 30 minutes for every one pound of turkey. Leave the turkey in its original unopened wrapper, and submerge it in cold water, such as in the kitchen sink, a cooler, or another deep, food-safe container. Drain the water and replace it with fresh cold water every 30 minutes. The turkey must be used as soon as it thaws.

Pro: It's faster than the fridge.
Cons: Compared to refrigerator thawing, this method requires more attention over a period of several hours. You might have to begin this process the night before (and get up every half hour to change the water) or before dawn, depending on what time you plan to cook the bird.

How to Thaw Turkey in the Microwave

Microwave thawing might be a last resort, but it can be safe. Before you commit to this plan, make sure your turkey will fit inside your microwave. Consult the owner's manual (if you can find it, or look it up online) to follow the instructions on how to calculate the number of minutes per pound based on the power level of the defrost cycle.

Remove the turkey from its wrapper, and set it inside a microwave-safe container to catch the juices. Thaw the turkey in five-minute intervals on the defrost cycle (never full power) followed by a five-minute rest. Rotate and flip the turkey each time to ensure it thaws evenly. Cook the thawed turkey immediately.

Pros: It's quicker than the fridge or cold water methods, although can still require 1 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the bird.
Cons: It requires more monitoring and work than the fridge or cold water methods, and must be done immediately before cooking the bird. Even on the defrost setting, the turkey will begin to cook in spots as it thaws and can dry out the tips of the wings and drumsticks.

Raw Turkey on White Background

Unsafe Thawing Methods

You may be tempted to rush the thawing process using unsafe methods to save steps, or because with all the other holiday planning, you're in a last-minute crunch. Don't. These methods may seem quicker, but they aren't safe.

Warm Water

Although it would seem to speed up the process, the turkey doesn't thaw evenly, so there is a risk of it reaching the temperature danger zone for contamination.

Trickling Water

A turkey must remain fully submerged in cold water to ensure the entire bird remains at safe temperatures throughout the thaw.

On the Porch or in the Garage

A steady safe-zone temperature is imperative to avoid the risk of bacterial growth. The weather is too uncertain and variable to rely on for safe refrigeration.

The Dishwasher

Heavens, no. (See warm water.)

Stored in Bags

Some people think that removing the turkey from its original wrapper can speed up the thawing process. This is untrue. Plus, leaking paper grocery bags can spread raw poultry juices all over the place, and plastic garbage bags are not meant to come in contact with food.

On the Counter

Nope. That's room temperature.

The bottom line is that if you're considering some thawing strategy that isn't in the fridge, in cold water, or in the microwave, it's a bad idea that could lead to making people sick. There's nothing to be thankful for in that scenario.

How to Cook a Turkey from Frozen

When there is simply not enough remaining time to thaw your turkey with one of the safe methods, the USDA says that we can actually put it in the oven while still fully or partially frozen.

Their website says it's perfectly safe, but a solidly frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer to cook than a partially or fully thawed bird. For more info on safe thawing methods, visit

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