June 12, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

Serving technology better

How to Safely Defrost a Frozen Turkey. Spoiler: It Takes Way Longer Than You Might Think

4 min read
How to Safely Defrost a Frozen Turkey. Spoiler: It Takes Way Longer Than You Might Think

Defrosting a turkey the right way doesn’t require any special skills, but it does take time — and probably more time than you’d guess if you’ve never done it. If you’re planning to order a specialty bird such as an organic, kosher, or particularly large or small bird, you’ll want to get it early to ensure it’s there by Nov. 23. We dug out the best places to buy turkeys online, and most of them will target deliveries a day or two before Thanksgiving, which means you shouldn’t have to freeze. But if your turkey shows up early, or you nab one from the supermarket ahead of time, you’ll need to pop it in the freezer and then defrost it using one of the below techniques.

While there aren’t any viable shortcuts to defrosting a turkey that don’t risk a rubbery bird or possible foodborne illness, the best way to thaw out a frozen turkey is beautifully simple. And, no, don’t even think about using the microwave.) And if you’re serving something other than turkey, such as brisket, rib roast or duck, and need to thaw your entree out, this same technique is best for any cut of meat.

This story is part of 12 Days of Tips, helping you make the most of your tech, home and health during the holiday season.

Here are the best ways to safely thaw your turkey — one slow and one a little quicker — ahead of Thanksgiving this year. 

For more turkey tips, explore our guide on the best way to prepare your turkey and nine yummy turkey alternatives to try this year. Plus, check out the best meat delivery services to secure all your holiday mains. 

Should you defrost a turkey on the kitchen counter?

No. It’s not safe, nor is it recommended to defrost a turkey or any poultry at room temperature. The key to safely thawing a turkey is not letting any part of the flesh rise about 40 degrees F for any extended period of time or foodborne bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. While you might be able to get away with room temperature defrosting of smaller cuts of meats, because turkeys are typically so large and take so long to defrost, you really can’t safely defrost a Thanksgiving turkey this way.

The best way to thaw a turkey: Use your refrigerator

This method is the most time-consuming option, but will net the best results: The USDA suggests 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, which means you’d need to set aside a few days or up to a week for a large bird. This method requires the least amount of effort. All you have to do is put your turkey in a container to catch drips and let it hang out in the fridge. 

To make sure your turkey (and any other meat) you’re serving is safe to eat, get a meat thermometer. It’s an affordable investment in both helping you figure out when your food is ready, and keeping your guests safe.


How long does it take to defrost a frozen turkey?

Here’s a snapshot of how long it could take you to thaw a frozen turkey of varying weights. See? It’s definitely wise to have a plan and set an alarm for the day you turkey needs to come out of the freezer.

  • 4 to 8 pounds: 24 hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds: 36 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 6 days

This turkey was thawed using cold water.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The fastest (safe) way to defrost a turkey: Use cold water

This method for defrosting a turkey will net faster results than the fridge, but it requires a few more steps. First, put the turkey in a leak-proof bag and put it in a cold tap water bath in the sink or a large receptacle (such as a cooler or clean recycling bin). The USDA recommends that you change the water every 30 minutes. I’ve found that it’s easiest to defrost your turkey in a cooler that has a spigot: This lets you easily drain the water to make room for fresh water — or drain it completely once the bird is defrosted. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw your turkey using this method.

It takes a little work to go from frozen turkey to a tasty main course.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Can you defrost a turkey in the microwave?

The USDA says that you can defrost your turkey in the microwave as long as you follow the product instructions and cook it immediately after thawing. Even if you can fit that big bird inside, I’d be extremely wary of relying on a microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat. In fact, I’d suggest avoiding the microwave at all costs. Even chickens are difficult to defrost well with a microwave and they’re generally a fraction of the size.

If anything, use the thaw setting for just a few minutes to get it started and then employ a combination of the cold water bath and fridge methods above to defrost your turkey. Don’t use the entire time that your microwave suggests for defrosting this amount of frozen meat, especially all in one go. It won’t be pretty, I promise you.

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