How to thaw the holiday turkey safely

Don’t let salmonella spoil the holiday meal.

Prevention of foodborne illness during the holiday season starts with purchasing and goes through the process of food preparation, to the serving of the turkey to the family.

Select turkeys should come either fresh or frozen from a supplier who has been inspected and follows local, state and federal guidelines for food safety. Always look for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection stamp on the package of the turkey when buying the bird from the grocery store.

Once a frozen bird is purchased, care needs to be taken in the thawing process. Michigan State University Extension recommends thawing a frozen turkey in the refrigerator. Never thaw meat at room temperature.  A 20 pound turkey will take five days to thaw in the refrigerator. Thawing the bird in the refrigerator will take advanced planning so the bird is ready to roast. The planning will depend upon how much space is in the refrigerator for thawing the bird and preparing other food items ahead of time. 

The following is a chart on roughly how long it will take for various sizes of birds to thaw:

Weight of turkey (lb) Days to thaw
8-12 1-2
12-16 2-3
16-20 3-4
20-24 4-5

A second way to thaw the turkey would be to use running water.  A sink or a food grade container large enough to hold the bird should be sanitized before putting the bird in it. Wash with hot, soapy water rinsing with hot water before putting the bird in it. Once the bird is placed in the sanitized container, it is necessary to run cold water over the bird continuously, allowing the water to drain away. The temperature of the running water needs to be no more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Weight of turkey (lb) Hours to thaw
8-12 4-6
12-16 6-8
16-20 8-10
20-24 10-12

If the running water technique is used to thaw the whole turkey it must be cooked immediately.

A third way to thaw the turkey is to use the microwave, immediately roasting the bird in the oven.

In preparing to roast the turkey, all surfaces that come in contact with the turkey need to be washed with hot, soapy water, rinsed with hot water, and sanitized before and after handling the bird.  These procedures will reduce the chances of salmonella being a guest at the holiday table.

When roasting a turkey, always use a food thermometer to check for doneness. The internal temperature of the turkey needs to be 165 Ft in order to kill salmonella.

By taking these food safety steps when thawing and preparing the frozen whole turkey, a foodborne illness will be less likely to be an unexpected guest at the holiday table.

To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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