Safe Thawing Instructions for the Thanksgiving Turkey

Many families purchase a frozen Thanksgiving turkey, and getting the turkey to the table involves “The Big Thaw.”  Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during “the big thaw.”  While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely.  However, as soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria present before freezing can begin to grow again.  Turkey must be kept out of the “Danger Zone” during thawing.  The Danger Zone is the temperature between 40 and 140°F at which bacteria can grow rapidly.  There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven.

Refrigerator Thawing.  When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator:

  • Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40°F or below.
  • Place the turkey in a container such as a roasting pan or on a tray to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.
  • Refrigerator thawing times range from 3 days for a 12-pound turkey to 6 days for a 24-pound turkey.

A turkey thawed in the refrigerator can remain in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days before cooking.  Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, but there may be some loss of quality.

Cold Water Thawing.  When thawing a turkey in cold water:

  • Allow about 30 minutes per pound.
  • Seal the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product.  Some turkeys as purchased are sealed in a plastic wrap; a sealed turkey can be placed directly in the sink once you have checked to make sure there are no holes in the wrap.
  • Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water.  Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.
  • Cold water thawing times range from 6 hours for a 12-pound turkey to 12 hours for a 24-pound turkey.

A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately.  After cooking, meat from the turkey can be frozen.

Microwave Thawing.  It can be challenging to thaw a turkey in the microwave oven without compromising quality.  If you do use a microwave, follow the oven’s manufacturer’s instructions for defrosting.  A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately.

A quick reference with easy-to-use safe thawing information is available in English PDF  En Español PDF 

Next topic: Brining Safely Will Bring Tender, Flavorful Meat to the Thanksgiving Table

Stay food-safe!

Authored by: Barb Ingham,
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