Skip to main content

The Big Thaw for Thanksgiving

Posted by Kathy Bernard, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service in Health and Safety
Nov 19, 2013

Uh, oh! Thanksgiving is right around the corner. You bought a turkey on sale last year and froze it. You know it’s safe because you recently read that frozen turkeys are safe indefinitely and keep good quality for a year. But what you don’t know is how or when to thaw it.

First of all, turkey should never be thawed on the counter or in hot water. These methods are NOT considered safe and may lead to foodborne illness. Also, never thaw a turkey in a garage, basement, car, on the kitchen counter, outdoors or on the porch. Turkey, as any perishable food, must be kept at a safe temperature during "the big thaw." If not, once the turkey begins to thaw and becomes warmer than 40 °F, bacteria present before freezing can begin to multiply.

Even though the center of the bird may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the turkey could be in the "Danger Zone," between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.

Now that you know how NOT to thaw, let’s talk about the safe ways to thaw a turkey.

Refrigerator Thawing

Plan ahead. A frozen turkey will require at least 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight. After thawing in the refrigerator, a turkey should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before cooking. A bird thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

Cold Water Thawing

This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The turkey must be kept in its original package to keep bacteria from the air or surrounding environment from being introduced and to keep the turkey from absorbing water.

The turkey should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. It should take about 30 minutes per pound to thaw. Once thawed by the cold water method, cook your turkey immediately. Check out the Turkey Thawing Chart for proper timing.

Microwave Thawing

After thawing turkey in a microwave oven, cook immediately because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process (bringing the food to "Danger Zone" temperatures). Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and the food may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.

Visit Let's Talk About Thawing a Turkey video to see the 3 methods for thawing turkey safely.


Ask Karen, the virtual food safety representative, is available 24/7 at Weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). On Thanksgiving Day, the Hotline will be open from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm Eastern Time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Category/Topic: Health and Safety