While you can find fresh heritage birds for holiday roasting, most of us buy frozen turkey, which means you have to figure out how to thaw the turkey and how long it will take—or do you? We cover the best way to thaw turkey, how long to do it, and whether you can cook frozen turkey (in case you forget all that other stuff, or just don’t want the hassle).
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.
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?
Say you’re celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend but your turkey is still in the freezer. Not to worry! 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).
Tramontina 12-Quart Stainless Steel Covered Stock Pot, $44.97 at Walmart
Just make sure you have a tall stockpot to hold all this goodness!
Fill it with cold tap water, seal the turkey in an airtight bag, 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).
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 (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.
See How to Cook a Turkey for roasting times, temperatures, and more turkey tips and tricks.
Header image courtesy of GMVozd / Royal / Getty Images