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How to Safely Thaw a Turkey

Posted by Marianne Gravely, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Initiatives Health and Safety
Feb 21, 2017

While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. As soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow again. There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.

3 Ways to Thaw a Turkey
3 Ways to Thaw a Turkey

Refrigerator Thawing (Recommended)

The USDA recommends thawing your turkey in the refrigerator. This is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature. This method takes some time, so allow one day for each 4 - 5 pounds of weight. If your turkey weighs 16 pounds, it will take about four days to thaw. Once thawed, the turkey is safe for another two days, so you can start thawing it six days before thanksgiving (the Friday before Thanksgiving).

The other two methods (cold water and microwave) must be done immediately before you start cooking the turkey, so you’ll have to wait until Thanksgiving morning.

Cold Water Thawing

For the cold water method, leave the turkey in its original wrapping and submerge it in a sink (or container) full of cold water. It is important that the water be cold so that the turkey stays at a safe temperature. You should change the water every 30 minutes. Empty out the water and replace it with fresh cold water. With this method, allow 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound, so a 16 pound turkey will take 8 hours to thaw using this method (so you might need to start around 4 a.m. if you want to eat in the afternoon!). Once the turkey has thawed, cook it immediately

Microwave Thawing

Before you commit to thawing your turkey in the microwave, check your owner’s manual for the size turkey that will fit in your microwave oven, the minutes per pound and the power level to use when thawing a turkey. Remove all outside wrapping and place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak. Use the defrost function based on weight. As a general rule, allow 6 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in the microwave. Be sure to rotate it several times, and even flip it, during the thawing process.

If the turkey starts to actually cook instead of just defrost, let it rest for 5 minutes or so before you resume thawing. Partway through thawing you may wish to cover the tips of the wings and drumsticks with a small piece of foil to shield them from the microwaves and keep them from cooking. Once the turkey has thawed you should cook it immediately.

Is it safe to use aluminum foil in the microwave? Read these safety guidelines! Exit disclaimer

How NOT to Thaw a Turkey

In case you are wondering, here are some thawing methods that are not recommended:

  • thawing a turkey on the counter, in the garage or on the back porch
  • thawing a turkey in a brown paper grocery bag or plastic garbage bag
  • using the dishwasher to thaw a turkey (with or without water)
  • any method that is not the refrigerator, cold water, or the microwave

How to Cook a Frozen Turkey

If your turkey is still icy on Thanksgiving morning, don’t panic! It is perfectly safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state; it will just take longer to cook. A solidly frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer to cook than a thawed turkey. If your turkey is only partially frozen, remember that it will take a bit longer to cook. Use your food thermometer, and when your bird measures 165˚F in the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast, it is ready.

For more information on safe thawing methods, visit Exit disclaimer.

Category/Topic: Initiatives Health and Safety

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Nov 21, 2016

My husband got a frozen 25lb turkey from his work. It sat in a cardboard box for the remainder of his work day (about 8 hours) He said the plastic was frosted up but the turkey was still frozen. We put it back in the freezer when he got home. Do you think it will be safe since it was out for the 8 hours?

Ben Weaver
Nov 29, 2016

@Holly - good question. Since the turkey was still frozen when your husband brought it home it is safe to eat. Cardboard boxes can be good insulation, but they may not be enough to keep foods smaller than a frozen turkey cold enough to be safe. If your husband gets a turkey every year we recommend taking a cooler with ice to work to make sure the turkey stays safe until you get it home.

Nov 20, 2017

I bought a 20lb turkey today, the Monday before thanksgiving. It is frozen and I put in the fridge. If it's not completely thawed by Thursday am can I use the cold water method to defrost the remaining time?

Jeff TIllett
Nov 21, 2018

Please clarify--As you caution that the turkey should not be allowed to warm into the 40 degrees or greater temperature zone, the water method does not seem safe. Most tap water is warmer than 55 degree well water in much of the country. The water covering my bird is > 60 degrees. I thought the thawing turkey might quickly cool it. It did not. I added ice cubes but did not lower the temperature below 50 degrees in an hour. Changing the water will raise the temperature again.
So is changing the water to reduce the bacteria load? Turkey is wrapped in it's plastic case. so minimal bacteria.

Ben Weaver
Nov 26, 2018

@Jeff Tillett - thank you for your comment. The idea is to use cold water when using the “cold water method” of thawing. If your tap water does not run cold water immediately, let it run for about 30 seconds. The water should then be cold enough to use for this method of thawing. You also want to change the water every 30 minutes. This ensures the water stays cold enough for a safe and constant thawing process. We hope this helps.

wavy crocket
Dec 14, 2018

first turkey woot woot wish me luck