It’s Thanksgiving Day and if your turkey isn’t already in the oven, well, don’t panic (too much). If your turkey is thawed enough to safely cut into pieces, spatchcock it for faster cooking, but if it’s still frozen solid? You can cook it right now—it will just take a little longer.
Scroll down for quick thaw methods below, but since even that takes a while, you can jump straight to the real question:
How Long to Thaw a Turkey
Thawing a turkey can take anywhere from 1 to 6 days in the fridge, which is the best way to do it safely. Plan on letting it rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours per every 4-5 pounds. Here’s a cheat sheet for different sizes of turkey:
- 4 to 8 pound turkey: 1 to 2 days in fridge
- 8 to 12 pound turkey: 2 to 3 days in fridge
- 12 to 16 pound turkey: 3 to 4 days in fridge
- 16 to 20 pound turkey: 4 to 5 days in fridge
- 20 to 24 pound turkey: 5 to 6 days in fridge
The Best Way to Thaw Turkey
The best way to thaw a turkey is to let it happen naturally in the fridge. Set the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet (so if any raw turkey juices leak out, they won’t contaminate other food) and let it hang out for the time recommended above; you can set the baking sheet on the lowest shelf as well just to be safest. Leave the turkey in its original packaging until it’s fully thawed.
How Long Can a Turkey Stay in the Fridge?
Once thawed, you can keep the turkey in the fridge for another two days (the temperature should be about 40 degrees Fahrenheit), so it’s okay to give yourself a little wiggle room and start thawing sooner rather than later. Do not refreeze a thawed or partially thawed turkey, though.
Can You Quick Thaw a Turkey?
You sure can. If you forget to put your turkey in the fridge far enough in advance, you can quick thaw your turkey with the cold water method. You’ll need a large bucket for this (a big stock pot may also work, depending on the size of your bird; in a pinch, use an insulated cooler).
Tramontina 12-Quart Stainless Steel Covered Stock Pot, $39.24 at Walmart
Just make sure you have a tall stockpot to hold all this goodness!
Fill your vessel with cold tap water, seal the turkey in an airtight bag (if you’ve taken it out of its packaging already), and submerge it. Change the water as it warms up to room temperature—that means you’ll be replacing it with fresh cold water every half hour or so. It’s kind of a pain and it’s still not that fast (you may be changing water for 7 or 8 hours total), but it works in a pinch.
That may have you wondering, Can you thaw a turkey in the microwave? If your turkey will actually fit in yours, then yes—the USDA approves of defrosting it that way too (but only when you do it right before you cook the turkey; otherwise, harmful bacteria will start to grow and no one will be thankful for foodborne illness). And in that case, do take the packaging off first.
How Not to Thaw a Turkey
Despite what your parents may have done, you should never defrost a turkey in the sink (either under hot water or at room temperature), as that gives bacteria a good chance to breed. The USDA says the only safe ways to go about thawing the turkey are the cold water method, microwave method, and in the fridge.
Can You Cook a Frozen Turkey?
If you forget to thaw your bird, period (or just decide to grab a last-minute turkey and don’t feel like attempting to defrost it), good news: You can cook your turkey frozen!
Bruce Weinstein, coauthor of “Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them,” has a few pointers for you in that case:
To recap: Cooking a frozen turkey will take about 50 percent longer than normal, so be sure to budget enough time for that, and cover the turkey with foil if the skin starts to get too brown before the meat is done. Also, remove the giblets from the cavity with tongs about an hour into the cooking time. You can salt and pepper the meat at the same time, and rub oil or butter on the skin as well.
Header image courtesy of GMVozd / Royal / Getty Images