Properly thawing a turkey requires no skill, but it does take time – probably more than you might expect if you’re doing it for the first time. If you plan to order a special bird, such as an organic bird, kosher bird, or a particularly large or small bird, you should order it in advance (e.g. now) to ensure it will be there by November 23. We dug the best places to buy turkeys online, and most will ship a day or two before Thanksgiving, which means you shouldn’t have to freeze. If your turkey arrives early or you already have it, it should be frozen and will need to be thawed properly.
While there are effective ways to thaw a turkey, you run the risk of having a rubbery bird after cooking or being exposed to possible foodborne illnesses. The best way to thaw a frozen turkey is incredibly simple (don’t even think about using it Microwave). If you need to thaw a frozen bird faster, there is one method that will safely thaw a turkey in much less time.
Here are the best ways to safely defrost a turkey – one slower, the other a little quicker – before Thanksgiving this year. If you’re serving something other than turkey, such as brisket, roasted ribs, or duck, and you need to defrost an entree, the same techniques work best for most cuts of meat.
Should you defrost a turkey on the kitchen counter?
NO. This is not safe and it is not recommended to defrost turkey or any poultry at room temperature. The key to safely defrosting a turkey is to not allow any part of the meat to rise to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for any extended period of time, otherwise foodborne bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. Although you can get away with thawing smaller cuts of meat at room temperature, because turkeys are usually so large and they take so long to defrost, you really can’t safely thaw a Thanksgiving turkey this way.
The best way to thaw a turkey: use the refrigerator
This method is the most time-consuming option but produces the best results, the USDA suggests 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds in the refrigerator set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less, which means that for a large bird you need to allow a few days or a week at most. This method requires the least amount of effort. All you need to do is place the turkey in a container to catch the drips and leave it covered in the fridge.
How long does it take to defrost a frozen turkey?
Here’s a snapshot of how long it might take to thaw a frozen turkey of different weights. See? It’s definitely smart to have a plan and set an alarm for the day the turkey needs to come out of the freezer.
- 4 to 8 pounds: 24 hours
- 8 to 12 pounds: 36 hours
- 12 to 16 pounds: 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds: 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds: 6 days
The quickest (safe) way to defrost a turkey: use cold water
This method of defrosting a turkey is faster than using the refrigerator, but it does require a few extra steps. First, place the turkey in an airtight bag and place it in cold tap water in the sink or large container (such as the refrigerator or a clean trash can). The USDA recommends changing the water every 30 minutes. I’ve found it’s easiest to defrost a turkey in the fridge with a tap: this allows you to easily drain the water to make room for fresh water – or empty it completely once the bird has thawed. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw the turkey this way.
Can you thaw a turkey in the microwave?
The USDA says you can defrost turkey in the microwave provided you follow the product instructions and cook immediately after thawing. Even if you can fit a bird this large inside, I would be very careful about relying on the microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat. In fact, I would suggest avoiding the microwave at all costs. Even chicken is difficult to defrost in the microwave and is usually a fraction of its original size.
If anything, use the defrost setting for a few minutes to start, then use a combination of the cold water bath and refrigerator methods above to thaw the turkey. Do not use all the time suggested by the microwave to thaw this amount of frozen meat, especially at one time. It won’t be pretty, I promise you.
For more turkey tips, check out our guide to turkey the best way to prepare turkey AND nine delicious turkey alternatives to try this year. Other than that, check it out best meat delivery services to protect the entire Christmas power grid.