How to Thaw a Turkey (2-Ways!)

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Learn how to safely defrost a turkey in time to roast it for your holiday feast. I have two thawing methods you can try based on the size of the bird.

Once you get your bird thawed out, you are ready to make roast turkey, and afterward, here’s how to carve a turkey.

Defrosted turkey elevated on a roasting pan.

A stunning roast turkey is always the star of the Thanksgiving table. Follow this easy guide if you plan ahead and purchase a frozen bird. Time is dependent on weight. The most important thing to consider is preventing food poisoning, which starts with the method chosen to thaw a frozen turkey. Don’t worry. I have tips to keep your guest safe.

Once you buy a turkey, there are two defrosting methods to use based on how much time you have. The easiest and safest method is thawing it in the refrigerator. But if you don’t have the space available, and if it’s Thanksgiving morning, there’s another option. Cold water thawing requires a little more attention, but it’s an effective way to defrost the bird faster.

Tutorial on how to thaw a frozen turkey.

How long to thaw a frozen turkey

Defrosting the turkey in the refrigerator will take at least 24 hours per 4 pounds [Source]. This is a good guide for frozen raw or fully cooked whole turkeys and breasts. Thawing time in cold water takes about 30 minutes per pound.

Turkey WeightRefrigerator Thawing (24 hours per 4 pounds)Cold Water Thawing (30 minutes per pound)
4 to 8 pounds1 to 2 days2 to 4 hours
8 to 12 pounds2 to 3 days4 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds3 to 4 days6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds4 to 5 days8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds5 to 6 days10 to 12 hours

Once thawed, it’s safe to store the turkey in the refrigerator for about four days.

Method #1: Refrigerator thawing

Frozen turkey thawing inside the refrigerator.

The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. It may take more time and planning, but it’s the most hands-off method and saves on water. Typically refrigerators are set below 40 degrees. This temperature keeps the raw poultry at an even and consistent chill for thawing.

If you plan on brining the turkey, add 1 to 2 days for that process.

How to thaw a turkey in the refrigerator:

  • Leave the turkey in its original packaging, or transfer it to a large plastic bag and seal it tightly.
  • Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rimmed sheet pan or roasting pan large enough that it does not hang over.
  • Allow for at least 24 hours per 4 pounds of turkey. When pressed, the meat should no longer feel solid.

Method #2: Cold water thawing

Defrosting a frozen turkey submerged in a stockpot filled with cold water.

The quickest way to thaw a turkey is using the cold water method. Water has a greater molecular density than air, making it better at transferring heat. This is for those times when you forgot to thaw in the refrigerator or need a fast way to melt the ice crystals from a partially frozen bird. However, depending on the size, this method will take several hours. Start the process early in the morning!

For a 16 to 20-pound turkey or larger, I highly recommend doing the process the day before and refrigerating overnight, as it can take more than 8 hours. To safely defrost, you’ll need to change out the water every 30 minutes. The temperature of the water should never go above 40ºF (4.4ºC). Add ice if needed, or transfer to a refrigerator if your container can fit.

You can do this in a sink, which I least prefer because it takes up space and can contaminate the area. Instead, use a painter’s bucket, cooler, or pot.

How to thaw a turkey in cold water:

  • Leave the turkey unopened in its original packaging, or transfer it to a large plastic bag and seal it tightly.
  • Place the turkey, breast side down, in the sink, large bucket, cooler, or pot. Cover it thoroughly with cold water.
  • Change the water every 30 minutes until it completely defrosts. If not submerged, rotate it every 30 minutes to keep it chilled.

How to know when a turkey is thawed

Your turkey has properly thawed when the meat is between 30 to 40ºF (-1.1 to 4.4 ºC). Use an instant-read thermometer to check several places in the breast and thigh. When touched, it should no longer feel solid.

The breasts should feel springy, and the legs should be able to move. The cavity should no longer have ice crystals. Keep thawing if you see any visual cues of it still being frozen or if the temperature is below 30 degrees.

Person drying a defrosted turkey using paper towels.

Ways to use a defrosted turkey

Frequently asked questions

Can I thaw a turkey in cold water overnight?

Only if you can transfer the container with the turkey to the refrigerator to store. This will keep the water and meat from reaching the temperature danger zone above 40ºC (4.4ºC).

Can you finish thawing a turkey in water?

If the turkey has been partially thawed in the refrigerator, it can then be transferred to cold water. Add it wrapped, then submerge it in cold water. Change the water out every 30 minutes until thawed.

Can you thaw a turkey in water and then put it in the fridge?

Once the turkey is safely thawed using cold water, it can be transferred to a sheet or roasting pan. Refrigerate for up to four days.

Can you thaw a turkey in the microwave?

A large microwave can be used to defrost a turkey. Unwrap and place on a dish to catch the juices. Use the defrost function, about 6 minutes per pound, or based on the manufacturer’s recommendation, rotating and flipping between intervals. Stop for 5-minutes if the meat starts to cook in spots. It’s a messy process. Clean and sanitizes the oven well after.

Can I roast a frozen turkey?

Yes, it will take about double the time as a defrosted or fresh turkey. Cook at 325ºF to thaw it for the first 2 to 3 hours. Once softened, add the butter or oil and seasonings. Roast until the thickest part of the breast is 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC), and the thickest part of the thigh reaches 170 to 175ºF (76 to 79ºC).

Never leave turkey out overnight to thaw

Bacteria like salmonella multiply rapidly, causing food-borne illness and spoilage in the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140ºF (4.4 to 40ºC). A warm kitchen is perfect for organism growth, even in a frozen turkey. This is why you should never thaw a turkey at room temperature overnight. If preparing the turkey for roasting, do not leave it on the countertop for more than 2 hours.

How to Thaw a Turkey

Need to defrost your turkey in time for Thanksgiving dinner? Here are two methods you can try based on the size of the bird.
5 from 2 votes
Prep Time4 hours
Cook Time0 minutes
Total Time4 hours
Servings 12 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine American

Ingredients  

  • 1 frozen turkey, whole or breast
  • cold water, as needed for cold water method

Instructions 

Method #1: Refrigerator Thawing

  • Prepare Turkey – Leave the turkey in its original packaging, or transfer it to a large plastic bag and seal it tightly. Place the turkey, breast-side up, on a rimmed sheet pan or roasting pan large enough that the turkey does not hang over.
  • Defrost – Allow for at least 24 hours per 4 pounds of turkey.

Method #2: Cold Water Thawing

  • Prepare Turkey – Leave the turkey unopened in its original packaging, or transfer it to a large plastic bag and seal it tightly. Place the turkey, breast-side down, in the sink, large bucket, cooler, or pot. Cover it completely with cold water. It should be below 40ºF (4.4°C), if not, add some ice or transfer pot to a refrigerator if there is space.
  • Defrost – Change the water every 30 minutes until defrosted. If not completely submerged, rotate the turkey every 30 minutes for even defrosting.

Notes

  • Checking the Turkey: The bird is defrosted when the breast and leg reach between 30 to 40ºF (-1.1 to 4.4ºC). When touched, the meat should spring back, and the legs should move when lifted.
  • Refrigerating Defrosted Turkey: The turkey can be transferred to a sheet pan or roasting pan in the refrigerator for up to four days after defrosting.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 12 servings
Calories 303kcal (15%)Protein 46g (92%)Fat 12g (18%)Saturated Fat 3g (15%)Polyunsaturated Fat 3gMonounsaturated Fat 4gTrans Fat 0.1gCholesterol 155mg (52%)Sodium 240mg (10%)Potassium 481mg (14%)Sugar 0.1gVitamin A 120IU (2%)Calcium 24mg (2%)Iron 2mg (11%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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