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 defrost a turkey is an essential thing to know.
The Safest Way to Defrost Frozen Turkey in Time for Thanksgiving
The safest and easiest way to defrost 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, they 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.
How Can I Defrost My Turkey Fast?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 you 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 huge pot or 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.
What to Avoid When Thawing a Turkey
Do NOT defrost a turkey in hot water. This is simply dangerous as it begs for bacteria to breed and can cause serious food poisoning.
Do NOT thaw a turkey at room temperature. This is also very risky because of the risk of bacteria developing.
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 Thawing Chart
|Turkey Weight||Thawing Time|
|Up to 12 lbs||2 to 3 days||3 to 6 hours|
|12 to 16 lbs||3 to 4 days||6 to 8 hours|
|16 to 20 lbs||4 to 5 days||8 to 10 hours|
|20 to 24 lbs||5 to 6 days||10 to 12 hours|
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I have a 23lb Turkey, I don’t have a thermometer to test the water being 40 . My neighbor said to put it in warm water. I knew that was wrong. I’ve had it in my refrigerator for 3 days, it hadn’t thawed at all. I’m having Thanksgiving early, on Monday. Today isSaturday evening. If I have to stay up until 3:00 am. I put it in sink at 5:00pm so I really need to stay up until about 4:00 am. When the turkey is done thawing canI put back in refrigerator until I’ve slept awhile. So many questions. How can I keep it at about 40 degrees, please I’m feeding about 15 people for my Church . Thank you, Patricia
Patricia, I am NOT a USDA expert – For this situation you might think about calling the butterball hotline which is live turkey cooking expertise: 1-800-BUTTERBALL. But I will say that a huge turkey like that will take up to 6 days to thaw, and it might happen. more rapidly at the end. if you can find a big clean garbage pail or tub large enough to hold the turkey, and keep it filled with very cold water the whole time. and do you have access to a thermometer? can you order one? I love that you are feeding people, and know you want to protect them!