How to Thaw a Turkey Safely (USDA Approved Methods)

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Learn how to thaw a turkey in the safest ways possible. Need to thaw and cook your turkey fast? There is an safe, easy solution for that too!

A large frozen turkey on a tray in the fridge thawing
Table of Contents
  1. Refrigerator Thawing (Recommended)
  2. How Long to Thaw a Turkey (Easy Chart)
  3. Cold Water Thawing
  4. Microwave Method
  5. Cooking a Turkey from Frozen
  6. How NOT to Thaw a Turkey
  7. Tips for Thawing and Cooking a Turkey
  8. How to Cook A Turkey
  9. Thanksgiving Dinner Ideas
  10. Frequently Asked Questions About Thawing a Turkey
  11. How to Thaw a Turkey Recipe

The best way to thaw a frozen turkey safely is thawing in the refrigerator. This allows for the frozen turkey to thaw at a slow rate. It is also the easiest way to thaw a turkey. You simply just put it in the fridge on a tray (keep it in all the original wrapper or outside wrapping) and allow it to thaw slowly.

How Long to Thaw a Turkey (Easy Chart)

Thawing turkeys is the most common around Thanksgiving, for obvious reasons. For those of you looking to thaw your Thanksgiving turkey, we have created this handy chart as a guide for when to start thawing that turkey. This chart is current for the year 2022. 

A chart with turkey thawing times based on the size of the turkey

Refrigerator Turkey Thawing Time

  • 8 to 12 pounds: 2-3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 3-4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 4-5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 5-6 days

Cold Water Thawing

The main objection to thawing using the refrigerator is sacrificing the fridge space. Sometimes having a 20 pound turkey in your fridge for a week isn’t the most convenient. In this case, your next best bet is to cold-water thaw. To do this, you want to thaw the turkey breast side down in cold tap water for 30 minutes per pound. You MUST change the water every 30 minutes. Drain the water and replace with fresh, cold water. This method can take up to 10 hours depending on the size of your turkey so plan accordingly for the day. This method is faster but requires attentiveness. 

A large frozen turkey in a sink full of cold water

COLD WATER THAWING TIMES 

  • 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

Microwave Method

This method really only works for smaller turkeys that can actually fit in a microwave. It really only works best for turkey breasts. Place on a microwave-safe dish and use the thaw/defrost function on your microwave and thaw according to microwave instructions. Be sure to rotate and turn often throughout the process. Though this method is possible, it isn’t one we recommend. Your turkey is more likely to end up dry using with method.

Cooking a Turkey from Frozen

Ok so what if you REALLY waited until the last minute and you are only hours away from your Thanksgiving feast? What if it is Thanksgiving morning and you just realized you have a frozen solid turkey on your hands? Don’t worry! All is not lost!

Did you know that you can cook your turkey from frozen? That’s right. You can put the turkey straight into that roasting pan from frozen. Remember to take out the gravy packet or gizzards from inside the turkey before cooking. Allow 50% more cooking time if cooking from frozen. So if your turkey takes 4 hours to cook when thawed, allow up to 2 more hours of additional cooking time. 

This method works great in a pinch but it does have its disadvantages. Seasoning a turkey from frozen can be difficult and may have to be done part-way through the cooking process so the spices and seasonings stick. 

How NOT to Thaw a Turkey

Do not place your turkey outside or on the counter to thaw. Thawing at room temperature allows bacteria to grow and is not safe. Any method besides the methods mentioned above are not safe. Some say that you can thaw your turkey in a brine but we have not tested this method nor has it been given the green light with the USDA. We have checked the methods above with the USDA website and with FoodSafety.gov and they are the only methods we have found to be completely safe. Always err on the side of caution. If you question if a different method is safe, it probably isn’t. It’s not worth the risk of food poisoning. 

Hand patting turkey dry with paper towels for How to Cook a Turkey Instructions.

Tips for Thawing and Cooking a Turkey

  • Always use a food thermometer to determine doneness when cooking a turkey. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and also the thigh before serving. Fully cooked is 165-degrees F for the breast meat and 175-degrees F for the thigh. 
  • If using the cold water method in the sink, be sure to sanitize the sink with bleach or soap afterwards. Some of the juices may have leaked out into the sink so you will want to stop any bacterial growth or cross contamination. 
  • Pat your thawed turkey dry with paper towels before seasoning. This will help the oils and seasonings stick to the turkey when cooking. 
Meat thermometer in a cooked turkey for Turkey covered with foil for How to Cook a Turkey.

How to Cook A Turkey

Now that you have a freshly thawed turkey, it’s time to cook it! We have an entire post on how to cook a turkey, including step-by-step directions, seasoning instructions, and even an easy video to show you how. You can’t go wrong! We will help you every step of the way.

Turkey garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds, sage, rosemary, thyme and orange slices for How to Cook a Turkey.

Thanksgiving Dinner Ideas

We are happy to be your source for all things Thanksgiving! We have absolutely everything you need to have the best Thanksgiving EVER! 

Frequently Asked Questions About Thawing a Turkey

Can I leave a turkey out overnight to thaw?

NO. Leaving a turkey out overnight or even more than an hour is not safe.

What is the best way to thaw a turkey quickly?

The very quickest way to thaw AND cook a turkey is to just cook it from frozen. If you are wanting to make sure the turkey is completely thawed before cooking, the cold water method is the best. See directions for both methods above to decide which is best for your situation.

How long can I refrigerate a turkey after being thawed?

If you have thawed the turkey in the refrigerator it can be stored for up to 2 more days in the refrigerator. If you thaw a turkey in cold water it needs to be cooked immediately. It should not be stored in the fridge after thawing.

A frozen turkey thawing in a refrigerator

How to Thaw a Turkey

5 from 2 votes
Learn how to thaw a turkey in the safest ways possible. Need to thaw and cook your turkey fast? There is an safe, easy solution for that too!
Prep Time 5 mins
Thawing Time 5 d
Total Time 5 d 5 mins
Course Dinner
Cuisine American
Servings 16 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 frozen turkey
  • cold water (option 2)

Instructions

Refrigerator Method:

  • Keeping the turkey in its original wrapping, place the frozen turkey on a tray and place on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator.
  • Allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of frozen turkey.

Cold Water Method:

  • Thaw the turkey breast side down in cold tap water for 30 minutes per pound. You MUST change the water every 30 minutes. Drain the water and replace with fresh, cold water.

Fastest Method:

  • No need to thaw at all! Just cook your turkey from frozen! Just add 50% more cooking time to your recipe. Remember to remove any gravy packets or giblets before cooking.

Notes

  • The cold water method can take up to 10 hours depending on the size of your turkey so plan accordingly for the day. This method is faster but requires attentiveness. 
  • If using the cold water method, clean your sink well with soap or bleach after thawing to kill any possible bacteria.
  • Do NOT thaw your turkey on a counter top at room temperature. Only use the methods above for a safe thaw.

Nutrition Information

Calories: 227kcalProtein: 35gFat: 9gSaturated Fat: 2gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0.1gCholesterol: 116mgSodium: 180mgPotassium: 361mgSugar: 0.1gVitamin A: 90IUCalcium: 18mgIron: 1mg

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About the author

Erica Walker

Erica lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband, Jared, an attorney, and her beautiful three girls. Beyond the world of recipes, she loves adventuring with everything from kayaking, to cruising, to snowboarding and taking the family along for the thrill ride.

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Comments

  1. I stopped thawing in water and put back in the fridge , as we are going to cook it on Christmas day, it is still pretty frozen.

  2. 5 stars
    Excellent advice. We use to thaw out our turkey on the counter, thank the Lord, no one ever got sick from that. Now we unthaw it in the fridge for at least 5 or 6 days.