How to Thaw a Turkey

Making a healthy Thanksgiving Turkey is more complicated than adding salt and setting the oven. You can't simply "set it and forget it." The holiday season brings an increased risk of food bourne illness. Improperly thawing a turkey needlessly puts the ones you care about most at risk.

Fresh vs. Frozen Turkeys

As far as thawing is concerned, there are two types of turkeys: fresh and frozen. Fresh turkeys are never frozen and therefore do not need any thawing; fresh turkeys come ready to cook. Frozen turkeys need proper thawing.

Fresh vs. Frozen Turkeys

If you go with a fresh turkey, buy it 1-2 days prior to cooking. If you buy it earlier, leaving it in the refrigerator increases the risk of food bourne illness. When you place the turkey in the refrigerator, put it in a pan on the bottom shelf. This prevents cross contamination with food stored underneath the turkey. Fresh turkeys should not be pre-stuffed. Stuff a turkey immediately before cooking.

Frozen turkeys are safe to eat for a very long time provided they stay frozen. For the best results, cook the [frozen] turkey within an year of purchase (hopefully sooner).

Thawing Methods

There are three methods to safely thaw a turkey: refrigerator thawing, the cold water method or microwave thawing.

Refrigerator. Refrigerator thawing requires 24 hours (1 day) for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. Use the table below or the Turkey Thaw Time Calculator for approximate times.

Place the turkey in a pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to avoid contaminating other foods. Leave the turkey in its original wrapper. Once thawed, a turkey can safely remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days. Proper thawing allows a turkey to be refrozen if you decide not to cook it.

Turkey Thaw Time - In Refrigerator (about 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds)
4-12 pounds 1-3 days
12-16 pounds 3-4 days
16-20 pounds 4-5 days
20-24 pounds 5-6 days

Cold Water. The cold water method is ideal if you are short on time and need to quickly thaw. Place the turkey in a pot big enough to completely submerge it in water. If the turkey is sticking out above the top of the pot, get a bigger pot.

If the turkey is not already in waterproof wrapping, wrap it tightly with plastic. Fill the pot with cold water. Every 30 minutes, replace the old water in the pot with new, cold tap water. Failing to replace the water every 30 minutes increases the risk of illness.

A turkey thawed using the cold water method needs to be cooked immediately after thawing. Do not store a cold water thawed turkey in the refrigerator or refreeze it for later cooking. Use the table below or the Turkey Thaw Time Calculator for approximate times.

Turkey Thaw Time - In Cold Water (about 30 minutes per pound)
4-12 pounds 2-6 hours
12-16 pounds 6-8 hours
16-20 pounds 8-10 hours
20-24 pounds 10-12 hours

Microwave. You can also thaw a turkey in a microwave oven, however due to varying microwave specifications, it is impossible to give general thaw times. Check the owner's manual for specific thawing directions, times and power levels.

*After thawing, remove the giblets and cook them separately.

The Bottom Line

Thawing is a slow but necessary process. Planning well in advance allows for proper thawing, greatly reducing the risk of illness. The next step in preparing a safe holiday turkey is proper cooking. For more information, read how to safely cook a turkey.