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How NOT to Thaw a Frozen Turkey

Three Bad Ways (and One Good Way) to Defrost a Frozen Turkey

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Frozen turkeys
Paul Swansen / Flickr

How NOT to Thaw a Frozen Turkey

There are four ways to thaw a frozen turkey — and three of them are bad. Each one, for one reason or another, increases the likelihood of someone coming down with a case of food poisoning. And that's not the way you want to remember your Thanksgiving.

There's only one safe way to thaw a frozen turkey, and we'll get to it in a moment. But first, here are three ways not to do it:

1. Don't Thaw At Room Temperature

That's right, I'm talking about thawing the bird on the kitchen counter. Or on the front porch, or in the garage, or the trunk of your car or any other clever places like these. Thawing at room temperature isn't just a bad method, it's awful. Uncooked meat or poultry (including frozen) shouldn't be left at room temperature for more than two hours. Any longer than that and you're just begging for a case of food poisoning. So, don't even think about this one.

2. Don't Thaw In the Microwave

Given the size of the average home microwave oven, this method isn't a realistic option for most people. If you have a turkey small enough to cram into your microwave, you don't really need to resort to this method in the first place. There's a better option for you a bit further down the page.

Even supposing you had access to some sort of industrial-sized microwave oven, you still wouldn't want to do this. Given the number of different power levels, minutes per pound and other variables, the most likely outcome of microwave thawing is a turkey that's still frozen in some parts, while other parts are already cooked. Not good. Stay away from this method.

3. Don't Thaw In Cold Water

It's technically possible to safely thaw a frozen turkey this way, but it won't be easy. The problem is, you need to allow 30 minutes of thawing time for every pound of frozen bird, and you must keep the water at 40°F or colder the entire time. For a large turkey, that means monitoring the temperature with an instant-read thermometer and changing the water every half hour for 12 hours!

What's so special about 40°F? That's the lower limit of the Food Temperature Danger Zone. If the turkey gets any warmer than that, it gives dangerous bacteria a chance to multiply like crazy. So unless you're strictly committed to changing the water up to 24 times, don't bother with this method.

So that's three wrong ways to thaw a frozen turkey. Now for the right way:

4. Do Thaw In the Refrigerator

Thawing in the refrigerator is the only safe way to defrost a frozen turkey. Here's how to do it:
  • Make sure that your refrigerator is at 40°F or colder.
  • Leave the turkey in its original wrapper.
  • Place the bird on a tray or in a pan to collect any juices that leak out.
  • Keep it at the bottom of your fridge so that any leakage won't contaminate anything below.
  • Allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey.
Here are the basic weight guidelines for refrigerator thawing:
Turkey Weight Thawing Time
Up to 12 lbs 1-3 days
12 to 16 lbs 3-4 days
16 to 20 lbs 4-5 days
20 to 24 lbs 5-6 days

As you can see, thawing a 20-pound turkey in the refrigerator will take the better part of a week. So plan ahead! A bit of preparation will ensure that you're not faced with a still-frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning.

Also see: Thanksgiving Pie Recipes

More for Thanksgiving:
Green Bean Casserole
Glazed Carrots Recipe
Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Corn on the Cob
Cranberry Sauce Recipe

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