How to thaw a turkey

There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey.

Planning ahead is the best way to insure a successful turkey feast starting with using proper thawing methods. There are three techniques for thawing turkey safely: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.

In the Refrigerator:
Thaw turkey breast side up, in an unopened wrapper on a tray. Allow at least 24 hours for every four pounds of turkey. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one or two days before cooking. Unlike cold water thawing and microwave thawing, foods properly thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality.

  • For 4 to 12 pounds of turkey,  thaw one to three days.
  • For 12 to 16 pounds of turkey, thaw three to four days.
  • For 16 to 20 pounds of turkey, thaw four to five days.
  • For 20 to 24 pounds of turkey, thaw five to six days.

In Cold Water:
Thaw breast-side down, in an unopened wrapper, in enough cold water to cover it completely. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the turkey chilled. A minimum thawing time is 30 minutes per pound for a whole turkey. Cook it immediately after thawing and do not refreeze it.

  • For 4 to 12 pounds of turkey, thaw two to six hours.
  • For 12 to 16 pounds of turkey, thaw six to eight hours.
  • For 16 to 20 pounds of turkey, thaw eight to ten hours.
  • For 20 to 24 pounds of turkey, thaw ten to twelve hours.

In the Microwave:
Follow the microwave manufacturer’s instructions for size, minutes per pound and power-level when defrosting. Remove all outside wrapping and place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish to catch juices. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing as parts of the turkey may begin to cook during microwaving.

It is not recommended to thaw a frozen stuffed whole turkey, a frozen whole breast roast in a bag, or a frozen boneless roast in a bag. These items conveniently go from the freezer to the oven with no thawing. Follow the package directions for proper handling and cooking. For more information, see the guide on safely thawing, cooking, and reheating turkey from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

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