How to Thaw a Turkey

Thawing your Turkey

Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during the thawing process. They should never be left out at room temperature on the counter, in the basement, or any place where the temperature is above 40 degrees F. When a frozen turkey begins to thaw, any bacteria that may be present on the meat before freezing will begin to grow. If the meat stays in the Danger Zone, 40-140 degrees F, for more than 2 hours, bacteria can grow rapidly. USDA recommends three ways to safely thaw food: in the refrigerator, in the sink using the cold water method, or in the microwave.

thawing turkey in the fridge

Thawing in the Refrigerator

When thawing in the refrigerator, make sure you allow enough time. You will need about 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees F. Also, place the bird in a large pan to collect any juices that may drip and contaminate other food. Use the chart below as a reference.

For a whole turkey in the refrigerator:

  • 4 to 12 pounds = 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds = 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds = 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds = 5 to 6 day

A turkey thawed in the fridge can remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days before cooking. If necessary, the bird can be frozen again without cooking, but there will be some loss in quality.

cold water thawing method

Thawing in Cold Water

The cold water method is simply thawing the turkey in a sink of cold water that is changed every 30 minutes. You should allow about 30 minutes for each pound of turkey. Be sure to use cold water and make sure the bird is wrapped securely in a leak proof bag in order to prevent cross contamination and a watery bird.

For a whole turkey in cold water:

  • 4 to 12 pounds = 2 to 6 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds = 6 to 8 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds = 8 to 10 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds = 10 to 12 hours

A turkey thawed using the cold water method must be cooked immediately.

how to thaw in the microwave

Thawing in the Microwave

When thawing in the microwave, follow the manufacturer’s directions for defrosting a turkey. They should have recommendations for the cook level and time according to the size of the bird. Plan on cooking the turkey immediately after thawing as some areas of the bird warm up quickly and begin to cook during the microwave thaw. Turkey should not be held for later cooking after thawing in the microwave as this increases the chance for bacterial growth.

A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately.

Reference: USDA Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing


Written by Annhall Norris, Extension Associate for Food Safety and Preservation; University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Edited by Lauren Fernandez, Oldham County Extension Program Assistant.

One thought on “How to Thaw a Turkey

  1. Pingback: Thanksgiving Turkey Tips | Oldham County Cooperative Extension Blog

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