How to thaw a frozen turkey safely

I’m making a turkey for the first time because, this year, we’re staying home for Thanksgiving and avoiding our traditional large holiday gathering due to the pandemic. However, as a novice, I’m not sure how to thaw the turkey. What do I do?

Getty Images

Good question!

It’s very important that you thaw and cook your turkey safely to help avoid developing foodborne illnesses. Thawing a frozen turkey correctly helps minimize the growth of bacteria, which can cause foodborne illnesses. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that might have been present before freezing can begin to grow again, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.

There are three safe ways to thaw a frozen turkey: in the refrigerator, in a container of cold water, or in a microwave.

The USDA recommends thawing it in the refrigerator because doing so allows the turkey to thaw in a controlled environment out of the temperature “danger zone”—between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit—where bacteria can multiply rapidly.

A turkey thawed in the refrigerator takes one day for each 4–5 pounds of weight. So, for example, if your turkey weighs 12 pounds, it can take three days to thaw. But, once thawed, you should cook the turkey within two days to ensure safety, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“If you find yourself needing to thaw the turkey using a faster method, you can place it in a container or sink and submerge it in cold water,” she said. “It’s important that the turkey stays cold, so you need to ensure that the turkey is completely submerged in cold water by replacing the water with fresh, cold water every 30 minutes.

“Turkeys thawed using this method will need 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound.”

Also, keep the turkey in its original wrapping while it is being thawed, the USDA advises, and consider a secondary container to catch juices and condensation as the bird defrosts.

If you want to thaw your turkey in the microwave, you will need to take it out of its packaging and place it on a microwave-safe dish. Use the defrost function based on the turkey’s weight, the USDA says. Generally, allow six minutes per pound to thaw. Once the turkey has thawed, you should cook it immediately.

Here are some other safe turkey tips from the USDA:

  • Don’t wash your turkey! Why? Because bacterial pathogens, which can be present both on the inside and outside of a raw turkey, cannot be washed off. The only way to destroy this potentially dangerous bacteria is to cook the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Washing your turkey or other raw poultry will increase the chance that you spray pathogens over other parts of your kitchen, potentially contaminating your cooking area and sink.
  • Use a meat thermometer to check that the temperature of your cooked turkey reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. You should insert the thermometer into three areas of the turkey to measure its internal temperature: in the thickest part of the turkey breast, in the innermost part of the wing, and in the innermost part of the turkey thigh.
  • Refrigerate your Thanksgiving leftovers within one hour of eating to prevent any pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses from growing.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for Ohio State University Extension.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.