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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

Nov 21, 2019

Thanks for the thawing guide. Have only done this for nearly 50 years, and never remember the 'exact rules!'. Sharing this with others, too. :)

Denise P. Niehans
Nov 25, 2019

I took my turkey of the package to thaw. Will it still be ok to eat?

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Denise P. Niehans - thank you for your comment. The turkey must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks or is not present, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the turkey. Also, the meat tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product if you are thawing using cold water.

Nov 26, 2019

How long do I have to cook turkey after using cold water method? Will there be enough time to inject turkey?

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Tony - thank you for your comment. Yes, you would have time to marinate the turkey in between thawing and cooking. The idea is to not put the bird back in the fridge or freezer to cook at a later date when using the cold water method of thawing. We hope this helps!

Nov 26, 2019

I may have over shot thawing my turkey in the fridge and instead of two days thawed - it is three days thawed. Can I still cook it

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Kristen - thank you for your comment. You can safely cook a turkey within 2 days of it completely thawing. So your turkey would still be safe. We hope this helps!

Mary Ann
Nov 27, 2019

My husband placed our 25 lb frozen turkey on the kitchen counter where it has sat for at least the last 48 hrs. I'm terrified that it is going to make everyone sick. He insists thatit will be fine because he is going to cook it up to above 165 degrees and that will kill all the bacteria. I don't want to take the chance of making our whole family sick. HELP!

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Mary Ann - thank you for your comment. We're sorry to tell you that this turkey is not safe. If left at room temperature for just 2 hours, it is not safe to eat. Even if the product is frozen. We would not recommend to consume. We hope this helps.

Nov 27, 2019

Put 12# turkey in big corian sink, filled with coldest h2o from tap 60F. After 30 minutes water bath was down to 40F. Did not seem logical to toss and refill, did it anyway. After that said this is crazy and left it. H2o stayed in 38-40 range. It seems to me cold bath method does not contain sufficient info for safety. Ie: how cold for initial h2o, how cold should h20 be over time. Eg: keep h20 bath at or below 40F. Your response to I tillet for example does not clarify the issue

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@John - thank you for your comment. The point of the cold water method is to thaw the bird rapidly. The key to this rapid method of thawing is to keep the bird at a safe temperature, using cold water. The bird will remain at a safe temperature and continue thawing as long as you’re using cold tap water and the water is changed every 30 minutes. You also don’t want to monitor the temperature of the water as that will naturally decrease in temperature as the frozen bird sits in it. But instead, monitor the temperature of the bird. As long as the water is the coldest that your tap water gets (cold to touch) and you’re changing the water every 30 minutes, the bird will remain safe, but you must fully cook it immediately afterward.

Nov 27, 2019

The bag of the turkey had two holes I didn't notice, and I submerged it in water. I let the water dripping out after 10 minutes and put it back in the fridge. Will it be ok to continue to thaw itovernight?

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Matt - thank you for your comment. As long as the turkey was not left at room temperature for more than 2 hours, it would still be safe.

Nov 28, 2019

Thaw Turkey in cold water but did not change the water after 7hrs

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Richard - thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, your turkey may have been compromised. If left at room temperature for more than 2 hours, it would no longer be safe to consume. We would recommend not to use. We hope this helps.

Nov 29, 2019

If your Turkey is 16 lbs. thawing is 4 days & still safe to cook in 2 more days. Then, a 12 lbs. thawing is 3 days & safe to cook after 2 more days? Just need to be sure.

Ben Weaver
Dec 06, 2019

@Amelia - thank you for your comment. That is the correct timeframe. We recommend to cook within 2 days of thawing. We hope this helps!

Dec 16, 2019

I have a 25 lb turkey. I have enough time to thaw in the refrigerator, but it will take up too much space. I have heard many people recommend putting the turkey in a cooler to thaw. Is this safe? If it is, how long would it take?
Thank you

Ben Weaver
Dec 17, 2019

@cheryl - thank you for your comment. For safety we do not recommend thawing your turkey in a cooler. There are only 3 safe ways to thaw, in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Unfortunately since your bird is so large, we do not recommend using the microwave. The best option would be to place in the fridge and allow to thaw. A 25 lb. bird will take about 5-6 days to thaw. You can keep it stored for an additional 2 days once thawed. I hope this helps.

Dec 21, 2019

Can you give a safe temperature range for the water you thaw a turkey in?

Ben Weaver
Jan 03, 2020

@Nancy - thank you for your comment. Whatever temperature your faucet water runs on the “cold” setting is considered safe. There is no specific safe temperature for the water, as long as it is cold to touch. The point of the cold water method is to thaw the bird rapidly. The key to this rapid method of thawing is to keep the bird at a safe temperature, using cold water. The bird will remain at a safe temperature and continue thawing as long as you’re using cold tap water and the water is changed every 30 minutes. I hope this helps.

Chris C-b
Dec 23, 2019

My turkey was put in cold garage for 24 hrs. It thawed minimally on top. The plastic wrapper separated from turkey and it’s puffy. Does the puffiness mean too much bacteria?

Ben Weaver
Jan 03, 2020

@Chris C-b - thank you for your comment. This is not considered a safe method of thawing. We do not recommend to do that at room temperature, no matter how cool or cold the outside environment may be. The only safe place for thawing is in the refrigerator, in cold water, or using the microwave. The puffy package is usually an indication that spoilage bacteria has begun to grow and therefore the product should not be used. I hope this helps.

Apr 03, 2020

What if I thaw in water in a refrigerator? Can I still then brine it for 12 hours before corking?

Ben Weaver
Apr 14, 2020

@Jeff - thank you for your comment. If you’re planning to thaw a turkey to then brine after, it would be best to thaw the bird in the fridge, without water. The water would be too cold to continuously thaw in the fridge, so it’s not recommended. Once the bird is thawed to your liking, you may then brine the turkey for up to 2 additional days in the fridge. I hope this helps.

Nov 22, 2020

Good advice.

Nov 22, 2020

I took my Turkey out of freezer and started to thaw in sink for 24 hrs just in packaging now in refrig
Is it still good? I didn’t immerse in water for the 24 hours

Nov 23, 2020

I have difficulty thawing a turkey in my spare refrigerator. The challenge is it takes way longer to thaw than the typical "24 hours per 4-5 pounds". I keep lengthening the time to complete the thawing process. This year's turkey was 18 pounds and it sat in my refrigerator 9 days and was still partially frozen. I cooked it on Saturday and turned out beautifully, but it's just bothersome that they never seem to thaw completely.

The temperature in the refrigerator doesn't freeze anything (e.g. a gallon of milk) so I'm at a loss. Any thoughts?

Allison Bimuller
Nov 24, 2020

I took my 15 pound turkey out of freezer and into fridge on November 16th was that too soon?

Michael Peralta
Nov 24, 2020

I just got a frozen turkey last night (Monday). I would have preferred the refrigerator method but the turkey will not be completely thawed in time. I was planning to brine the turkey and then marinate at least one day before Thanksgiving (Would’ve been great if I could do it today, Tuesday). However, if I thaw with the cold water method your saying that it needs to be cooked immediately. Do you have any suggestions for my particular situation?

Nov 24, 2020

If I thaw my 12 lb turkey in the refrigerator for 2 days, can I use the cold water method on Thanksgiving morning to finish thawing?

John Mahoney
Nov 24, 2020

You really need to warn about the bag of organs and parts that they stuffing the turkey! If a cook didn't know to thaw the bird she might not know what's inside.

Nov 25, 2020

Can I combine methods? Not enough time for fridge thaw for my 13 lb bird. Can I cold water thaw 8lbs worth ( 4 hours ) in water , then 1 day in fridge to thaw 5 lbs. ?

Nov 25, 2020

Tuesday night I put it on the counter it was frozen solid it was out till 4 OO I was shocked it was defrosted I put it back. Should I get rid of it.

Nov 25, 2020

I’ve had a 19 lb Turkey in a cooler of cold water since Sunday night. I Havnt changed the water and the only thermometer is a Candy thermometer that says way below 100 degrees like it at the very bottom of thermometer so I figured it’s 40 or less degrees . Is it still safe since I’m not cooking it til Friday?

Nov 25, 2020

I thought the website would be the best place to go to see how to thaw a frozen turkey. However, after reading the microwave thawing instructions, I think maybe I need to look elsewhere. Directions say and I quote “Partway through thawing you may wish to cover the tips of the wings and drumsticks with a small piece of foil”. And Yes, I read the safety guideline in the next section. This sounds absolutely crazy to me that anyone would even try to use foil in their microwave. My microwave instructions clearly says to avoid using metals...

Margaret Irene Bouteiller
Nov 25, 2020

Thank you . I just wanted to be sure I remembered the right way to defrost the turkey

Bobbie Bush
Nov 25, 2020

Thanks for the info regarding an icy turkey! Mine is 13 lbs and I put it in the fridge Monday morning. It is still partially frozen. I was afraid I would have to postpone Thanksgiving. As long as I can get the innards out, I should be good to go. Wish me luck!

Nov 25, 2020

I am thawing my turkey right now using cold water method. Can I thaw it and then stick it back in fridge until thw morning. I'm confused by this cook it immediately!!

Nov 25, 2020

Thanks for your explanation. I read several articles about defrosting in the sink, then saw this piece. I’d been assuming you change the water every 30 minutes because without doing so, the water gets too cold. The water surrounding my turkey started at 60° and went down to near 45° after 30 minutes. It’s an 18-pounder in one side of a standard double sink. Now I know I don’t need to change the water if the temp stays below tap water temp.

Brent Anderson
Nov 25, 2020

Why change the water every 30 minutes? I see this everywhere, but no explanation of why?! My tap water is about 65-70 degrees. After 30 min, the 0 degree turkey cooled the water to 55-60 degrees. If I change the water it is going to INCREASE the water temperature. Is that what I want to do? Increase the water temperature? There isn't anyplace near me in Los Angeles where the tap water comes out at 40 degrees, assuming that is the goal. Seems much better to me to either ice the water and add ice if the temperature rises above 40 degrees, or put turkey and water in large pot in re-fridgerator to keep it at 40 degrees. However, when I did that, a layer of ice formed on the outside of the bird.

Nov 25, 2020

my wife put a turkey on the counter to thaw it was wrapped in plastic, does the water from the turkey present a bacteria issue?

Nov 25, 2020

Hey so my turkey was frozen I used the water method process and it worked but I put the Turkey back into the fridge next day I put more solution for a brine in my turkey and now it’s been two days will it be safe to eat ?

Pat Gauch
Nov 26, 2020

Because my 23 pound turkey was not thawing, I opened the top of the bag and took the wrapping off after three days. It is four days since I bought it, it is still mostly frozen. Can I cook it frozen today, Thanksgiving?