How to Safely Thaw Frozen Turkey

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Cold water is the fastest way to safely defrost turkey.

Wrapped, frozen turkey in a pan of water.

Frozen turkeys are the go-to for most turkey lovers in the off-season and are also very popular at Thanksgiving. That’s because fresh turkey may be great, but it’s a lot harder to find outside of November and much, much more expensive.

Learning how to properly thaw a whole turkey (or even turkey breast) is an essential thing to know, whether it’s for a holiday meal or just a special gathering. Planning ahead — making space in the fridge and allowing for enough time to defrost the turkey safely (NOT at room temperature!) — is half the battle.

Turkey breast thawing in the fridge.

Thawing Frozen Turkey in the Refrigerator

Refrigerator thawing is the much-preferred method of defrosting a frozen turkey. It is by far the safest method and also the easiest since you do not have to do anything except let the turkey sit in the fridge and thaw. As an added bonus, the turkey will thaw more evenly. Make sure your refrigerator’s temperature is between 37 and 40 degrees.

The only catch is that you need to plan ahead. As the rule of thumb, for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird, there needs to be 24 hours of defrosting time. (Check out the chart below for some help with that math.) 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 that if any juices spill out, they do not contaminate anything below.

Wrapped turkey on a tray in a 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 ½ days (or 36 hours) to thaw completely. Again, make sure the temperature of the fridge is between 37 and 40 degrees.

How to Thaw 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. 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 and changing the water for 8 hours.

Woman putting a frozen, wrapped turkey into water.

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 degrees) — this may mean adding ice to cold tap water. Follow the chart below to figure out 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, it probably will 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. It’s the perfect environment 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 a frozen turkey. Even if your turkey can fit in the microwave, it is still not a good practice. Microwaves vary so much with wattage, power levels, and other variables that they just cannot consistently thaw large items. With this method, you are most likely to get a bird cooked in some places, thawed in others, and frozen in others — in other words, a bird that is totally unsafe to eat.

How Long Does It Take to Thaw Turkey?

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
Time required to thaw turkey.

FAQs

What’s the safest way to defrost a frozen turkey?

The safest and easiest way to defrost a turkey (or any bird, for that matter) is in the refrigerator. Because your turkey 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.

How can I thaw turkey fast?

If Thanksgiving is coming up and you forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer, never fear — there are speedier ways to thaw out the bird than sitting it in the fridge. Submerge your turkey in cool water (see table for details) and change out the water every half an hour to prevent bacteria growth.

Turkey Recipe Ideas

Easy Roasted Thanksgiving Turkey in roasting pan.

Once thawed, you have to consider your cooking options! You could, of course, opt for a Traditional Roasted Thanksgiving Turkey or maybe a Cajun Roast Turkey. For turkey breast, think about Lemon-Garlic Turkey Breast, Instant Pot Turkey Breast, or Slow Cooker Turkey Breast. Or maybe you want to grill a split turkey breast if the weather allows.

Then there are the leftovers! Not only can you make some really, really great deli sandwiches with sliced, defrosted turkey breast, but there are a whole host of other ways to use up that turkey.

What to Serve With Turkey

Carving a Cajun Roasted Turkey on wood cutting board.

More How-to for Turkey Day

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5 from 1 vote

How to Safely Thaw Frozen Turkey in Cold Water

Cold water is the fastest way to safely defrost turkey.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Defrosting Time: 6 hours
Total Time: 6 hours 20 minutes
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Equipment

  • Large pot

Ingredients 

  • 1 frozen turkey (any size; or turkey breast)
  • Water (optional)

Instructions 

  • Place the turkey in its original wrapping in some sort of container large enough so that it's fully submerged. A huge pot or a very clean garbage can is a possibility.
  • Cover with cold water (40 degrees) — this may mean adding ice to cold tap water. 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.
  • Follow the chart in the notes to figure out how long your turkey would take to thaw in cold water.

Notes

If you have the time and plan ahead, it really is best to thaw turkey in the refrigerator. In a pinch, the cold water method will work. Use the chart to estimate how long it will take to safely thaw a turkey. And, do not be tempted to defrost frozen turkey in the microwave!
Turkey Weight Thawing Time
(Refrigerator)
Thawing Time
(Cold Water)
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

Nutrition

Serving: 12g, Calories: 1kcal, Protein: 0.2g, Fat: 0.02g, Cholesterol: 1mg, Sodium: 1mg, Potassium: 2mg, Vitamin A: 0.3IU, Calcium: 0.1mg, Iron: 0.01mg
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About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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2 Comments

  1. Patricia says:

    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

    1. Katie Workman says:

      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!