How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey

Frozen turkeys are the go-to for most turkey-loving people.  Fresh is great but harder to find (especially outside of November) and more expensive.  And if you want to enjoy turkey on some of the other days of the year other than just Thanksgiving, then learning how to properly thaw a turkey is an essential thing to know.

The safest and easiest way to thaw a turkey (or any bird for that matter) is in the refrigerator.  Because it remains cold the whole time, it prevents harmful bacteria from growing that can cause food poisoning. Having said that, you can also safely thaw a turkey in cold water if you need a speedier process.

Thawing Frozen Turkey in the Refrigerator

Refrigerator thawing is the much-preferred method of defrosting a turkey. It is by far the safest, and also the easiest as you do not have to do anything except let it sit in the fridge and thaw. Plus the turkey will thaw more evenly.  Make sure your refrigerator’s temperature is between 37°F and 40°F.

The only catch is that you need to plan ahead as the rule of thumb is for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird, there needs to be 24 hours of defrosting time.  And bigger birds can take even longer per pound because of their size and density.

Leave the turkey in its original wrapping, and place the bird on a tray or in a pan to collect any juices that run out. Place the turkey on the bottom of the fridge so if any juices do spill out, it does not contaminate anything below. Follow the chart below for how long your turkey would take to thaw in the refrigerator.

Thawing Frozen Turkey Breast in the Refrigerator

The exact same principles apply when thawing a frozen turkey breast vs. a whole turkey. A 6 or 7-pound turkey breast will take about 1 1/2 days (36 hours) to thaw completely. Again, make sure your the temperature of the fridge is between 37°F and 40°F.

Thawing Frozen Turkey in Cold Water

This is certainly an option, but boy is it high maintenance!  The water must remain at 40 degrees or colder the whole time and it needs 30 minutes of thaw time per pound of turkey. So, you need to change the  water about every half hour in order to maintain the water temperature, and not allow warmer water to become a breeding ground for salmonella. For example, if you have a 16 pound bird…that’s monitoring it for 8 hours and changing water 16 times!  

But, if that’s what need to do, in order to make Thanksgiving happen, it’s a good option.  Place the turkey in its original wrapping in some sort of container large enough to have it fully submerged. A very clean garbage can is a possibility.  Cover with cold water (40° F) which may mean adding ice to even cold tap water. Follow the chart below for how long your turkey would take to thaw in cold water.

Thawing Frozen Turkey Breast in Cold Water

Again, the water must remain at 40 degrees or colder the whole time and it needs 30 minutes of thaw time per pound of turkey breast. Make sure to change the water about every half hour in order to maintain the water temperature, and not allow warmer water to become a breeding ground for salmonella. If you have a 6-pound turkey breast, that will probably take about 3 hours to thaw, with up to 6 water changes.

Things to Avoid When Thawing a Turkey

Do NOT thaw a turkey at room temperature.

This is simply dangerous as it begs for bacteria to breed and can cause serious food poisoning. 

Do NOT microwave frozen turkey. 

If a turkey can even fit in a microwave, it is still not a good practice. Microwaves vary so much with wattage, power levels and other variables, they just cannot consistently thaw large items. You are more likely to get a bird cooked in some places, thawed in others, and frozen in others — not safe at all.

Turkey WeightThawing Time
(Refrigerator)
Thawing Time
(Cold Water)
Up to 12 lbs2 to 3 days3 to 6 hours
12 to 16 lbs3 to 4 days6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 lbs4 to 5 days8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 lbs5 to 6 days10 to 12 hours

4 Turkey Recipes:

Here are some recipes that use turkey.

Also Read: 11 Casseroles, Soups (and More) Recipes Using Leftover Turkey.

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