Safely Thawing a Turkey

What if wake up Christmas morning, your turkey is still frozen, and the extended family is arriving in about four hours. What do you do? Don’t panic — you have some other safe options to quick thaw that turkey.

With all the turmoil involved in preparing a delicious meal for your guests, sometimes the plans just don’t work out exactly. However, when solving those problems, remember food safety should also be a top priority.

Benefits of a Frozen or Fresh Turkey

Frozen turkeys are flash frozen immediately after processing to 0°F or below and held at that temperature until packaged. They are more convenient to find and store until you need to cook them. Turkeys are safe frozen in the freezer indefinitely; however, cook within 1 year for best quality. The meat, once defrosted, is virtually at the same freshness as the day it was processed.

Fresh turkeys are deep chilled after packaging, hold their moisture better, and have a meaty texture with deeper natural flavors.  They have a shorter shelf life (1-2 days in the refrigerator) and are, therefore, usually more expensive.

Whether you buy a fresh or frozen turkey, proper safe thawing, handling, and cooking of the bird will ensure a delicious holiday meal.

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Labeling Laws for Turkeys (Fresh and Frozen)

According to the USDA, a turkey is considered “fresh” only if it has never been chilled below 26°F to assure consumers that the turkey they buy has never been frozen.

Turkeys chilled at 0°F must be labeled “frozen.”

If a turkey is stored between the 25°F – 1°F, it may or may not be labeled “previously frozen.”

Source: USDA – The Poultry Label Says “Fresh” (PDF)

The Bacteria Danger Zone

The bacteria “danger zone” is between 40°F and 140°F — the temperature range where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely, but as soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow.

A frozen turkey left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the between 40 °F and 140 °F.



The Three Safe Methods to Thaw a Turkey

There are three safe methods to thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.

1. Refrigerator Thawing

According to the turkey experts, for every pound your turkey weighs, you’re going to need six hours of thawing in the refrigerator. That means a 20 pound turkey needs 5 days to thaw. Use the Butter Ball Turkey Calculators – to figure out your specific refrigerator thaw and oven cook times.

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 to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.

Refrigerator Thawing Times  – Whole turkey:

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days

A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality.

2. Cold Water Thawing

Allow about 30 minutes per pound.

First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product.

Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

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

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

3. Microwave Thawing

Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instruction when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed.  A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately.

Safely Thawing a Turkey Infographic


Turkey Food Safety Infographics