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You’ve bought your bird and have it safely stashed in your freezer so it’ll keep perfectly until Thanksgiving arrives. But there’s one big obstacle you’ve got to tackle before you can season your turkey and pop it into the oven – you’ve got to thaw it.
While there are a few different methods for defrosting a whole turkey, not all of them will give you an even, bacteria-free final result. Find out how to safely bring your bird up to temperature, without putting your guests’ health at risk.
Thaw your turkey in the fridge for the best results
Hands down, the best – and safest – way to defrost a turkey is the same method you’d use for any other variety of frozen meat. Put it in the fridge and let it come up to 40 degrees all on its own.
While it’s tempting to want to encourage speedier thawing by keeping your bird out at room temperature on the countertop or in your sink, these methods aren’t the most sanitary or safest for preventing potential food borne illnesses. That’s because, as the USDA explains, bacteria begins to grow and multiply rapidly once raw meat reaches temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you allow your turkey to sit out at room temperature, it’ll speed up bacterial growth and can become unsafe pretty quickly.
Plus, who wants to run the risk of leaving Thanksgiving’s most crucial ingredient out on the counter where anything can happen? (I’m looking at you, food-stealing pets!)
Instead, keep your turkey safe from rapid bacterial growth and unsafe temperatures by thawing it in your fridge. The USDA recommends placing your bird in the refrigerator about two to four days before you plan to cook it.
When, exactly, will your turkey be completely thawed with this method? It takes about one full day of fridge time to thaw 4 to 5 pounds of meat. So, if your turkey weighs 10 pounds, you’ll need two days to defrost it. Going bigger? A 16-pound turkey can take three to four days.
If you aren’t 100 percent sure when you should pull your bird out of the freezer and move it into your refrigerator, you can consult Butterball’s handy turkey thawing calculator. Just input your turkey’s weight, and it’ll tell you exactly how much time it needs in the fridge.
Want to err on the side of thawing early rather than waiting until it’s too late? That’s a smart idea – and it’s totally safe. The USDA notes that once your turkey is completely defrosted in the refrigerator, it can be kept there safely (without becoming dangerous to consume) for two more days. So, if you defrost your turkey four days ahead of Thanksgiving and it thaws out a day or two early, it’s perfectly fine to stay in the fridge and hang out until you’re ready to cook. Depending on the size of your turkey, you can start the thawing process as early as six days in advance.
You can use the sink – but you have to be careful
Another common thawing method is submerging frozen meat in cold water in the sink. But while your average package of frozen chicken or beef might fit in a bowl inside your sink, an entire turkey isn’t so easy to work with.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use your sink to defrost your bird, though. While it isn’t the recommended method, it is an option you can turn to if you’re short on time (I mean, who hasn’t forgotten to take their turkey out in advance?).
You just need to be careful about how, exactly, you thaw your turkey in the sink in order to reduce the chances of bacteria developing. Here’s how to do it:
- Keep your turkey in its original wrapping (or place it in a leak-proof plastic bag) and set it in your sink
- Fill your sink with enough cold water to completely submerge the turkey
- Drain your sink every 30 minutes and refill with fresh cold water
Keeping the turkey in consistently cold water will help it maintain a safe thawing temperature and somewhat mimic refrigerator thawing, just faster. How long will it take to completely defrost? You’ll want to allow 30 minutes per pound. So, an 8-pound turkey will take about 4 hours to thaw; a 12-pound bird will take around 6 hours.
However, you absolutely have to change the turkey’s cold bath water every half hour. If the water warms up too much, you’ll run the risk of bacteria growing and multiplying, bringing your bird into the “danger zone” for potential food borne illnesses.
What if you completely forgot to start thawing your turkey early?
While the sink and cold water approach can be helpful in a pinch, it’s still not a fast method by any means. It can take a full day of swapping out water and soaking to completely thaw. So what are your options if you need to get that turkey on the table in just a couple of hours?
This might shock you, but you can actually throw your still-frozen turkey right into the oven if you need it cooked ASAP. According to the USDA, it’s perfectly safe to cook a frozen turkey (in fact, it’s kind of a great method because it completely avoids any bacteria or food borne illness risk).
Just keep in mind that if you are putting a rock-solid turkey into the oven, it will take longer to cook. While a thawed turkey will be ready in about 2 to 3 hours, a frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer. And you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on the meat’s internal temperature – when it reaches 165 degrees at the thickest points, it’s properly cooked and safe to eat.
Now that you’ve mastered the art of perfectly thawing a whole turkey, turn it into an amazing meal with these recipes: