There’s only one completely safe method. 

By Corey Williams
July 20, 2020
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Everyone knows that preparing a Thanksgiving turkey is tricky business. It’s easy to get caught up in the basting, stuffing, and roasting of the bird—so much so that a lot of people forget about thawing entirely. 

Unfortunately, screwing up on this step is dangerous. 

Best case scenario? The main course isn’t ready until 3 a.m. on Friday. Worst case scenario? Your entire family ends up with salmonella

Here’s everything you need to know to thaw a turkey perfectly every time: 

How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Turkey?

It depends on how big the turkey is and the method of thawing you’ve chosen. Here’s a handy chart* we made to make the whole process a little easier: 

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*We got this info from FoodSafety.gov—that’s how we know it’s reliable.  

Should You Thaw a Turkey at Room Temperature?

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No. You should never leave any uncooked meat at room temperature for more than two hours, let alone the turkey you plan to feed your entire family. 

As soon as the frozen turkey begins to thaw, the bacteria that was there before freezing begins to grow at a rapid rate. 

The “danger zone” for raw meat is between 40° and 140°. To put that into context: The ideal refrigerator temperature is at or below 40°, while the average room temperature is between 68° and 76°.

The Best Way: In the Fridge

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The best, safest, and easiest way to thaw a Thanksgiving turkey is in the refrigerator. 

So why doesn’t everybody do it? It takes longer and it takes up valuable fridge space. 

But don’t let these (very small) downsides deter you: This is the only foolproof way to ensure your turkey will thaw at a consistent and safe temperature.  

To thaw your turkey in the fridge, it’s important to plan ahead. It’ll take about one day per 4-5 pounds to completely thaw. So, if your turkey weighs 20 pounds, you’ll need to move it to the refrigerator about five days before Thanksgiving. 

If you moved it too early, don’t sweat it! A completely thawed turkey can hang out in the fridge for about two days.

In a Pinch: Cold Water

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What if you’ve got hours to thaw your turkey instead of days? Try submerging it (in its original packaging) in a sink or container of cold water. 

It’s important that the bird is completely submerged and that the water is cold. Using hot or warm water will put you in the temperature danger zone that encourages bacteria growth. 

This method is a bit more hands-on than the first: You’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes so it remains cold—that’s kind of a pain in the butt if you’re defrosting a large turkey overnight.  

Allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound. If your turkey weighs 20 pounds, it’ll be completely thawed in about 10 hours. 

Should You Thaw a Turkey In the Microwave?

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You technically can thaw a turkey in the microwave, but we don’t recommend it. 

Every turkey and every microwave is different, so it’s almost impossible to follow a clear set of directions. Plus, even if you do everything correctly, you’re still likely to end up with an unevenly thawed bird. 

If you must use the microwave, here’s what to do: 

  1. Make sure your microwave is large enough to accommodate the turkey. If you have a regular-sized microwave and a turkey that’s meant to feed your whole family, it’s probably not. 
  2. Remove the plastic packaging and place into a microwave-safe dish to catch any drippings. 
  3. Check your owner’s manual for specific turkey thawing instructions. If you’re lucky, it’ll tell you how long to defrost and at what power level. No manual? The general rule of thumb is six minutes per pound. 
  4. Use the defrost function on your microwave. Accidentally cooking instead of defrosting is a recipe for disaster. 
  5. Rotate and flip the turkey several times to ensure even thawing. Don't skip this step, no matter how busy you are prepping the big feast. 
  6. Cook immediately in the oven

Can You Cook a Frozen Turkey? 

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Yes! It’ll just take about 50 percent longer, so make sure you adjust your recipe accordingly. 

Your turkey is ready to eat when a meat thermometer registers 165˚ in the innermost part of the thigh. 

How Not to Thaw a Turkey

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Just so we’re completely clear: There is one completely safe way to thaw a turkey (in the refrigerator), one OK-ish way (in cold water), and one way that is only acceptable in a serious time crunch (in the microwave). 

Nevertheless, some people insist on using other methods. Some of these (totally unsafe) techniques include: 

  • On the counter. We’ve been over this. Room temperature thawing is a one-way ticket to Food Poisoning City. 
  • In hot water. Again, we’ve been over this: Please don’t mess around with bacteria. 
  • In the garage. This could work depending on where you live and what kind of temperature control you have in your garage—but don’t try it. It’s impossible to regulate the temperature in your garage with enough accuracy to ensure even thawing and to prevent bacteria growth. 
  • In the dishwasher or with a blow dryer. Yes, people do both of these things. No, they don’t work and they will most likely make you sick.