Thawing the Thanksgiving Turkey

A safe turkey dinner for Thanksgiving begins with thawing the turkey.

Food safety is important year round, but during the holidays it becomes increasingly important. During the holidays we generally prepare larger meals, leave food out of the refrigerator for longer periods, and overload our refrigerators.   As we get closer to the Thanksgiving holiday, out thoughts turn to the frozen turkeys in our freezer; the center of many holiday meals.  Preparing a juicy turkey for your holiday feast can be a challenge but before your thoughts turn to cooking the turkey, Michigan State University Extension encourages you to remember that a safe turkey dinner starts with safely thawing your frozen turkey.

Getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner begins when you purchase a frozen turkey or remove your turkey from the freezer.  Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. If the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40 ºF, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again if proper thawing methods are not used. Keeping foods below 40 degrees when thawing is the reason that countertop thawing is not recommended.  When poultry is left on the counter thawing above 40 degrees for long periods of time, bacteria can multiply rapidly and cause the meat to be unsafe.  Food must be kept out of the temperature danger zone (40 to 135 degrees) to ensure safe food.

The safe ways to thaw food are in the refrigerator, in cold water, in the microwave oven and as part of the cooking process.

In refrigerator – Thawing your turkey in the refrigerator is a good way to thaw in a controlled temperature and ensure your turkey stays safe while thawing. Thawing in the refrigerator does take time; you will want to allow about 24 hour per 5 pounds of turkey.  The following chart from the USDA provides refrigerator thawing times for various size turkeys:


In cold water –You can safely thaw the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes if you don’t have enough time to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. Changing the water will enable you to assure safe and effective thawing and ensure that the water is ice-cold. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. Be sure the turkey is in leak-proof packaging. Tissues can absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product. Turkeys thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately because conditions were not temperature controlled.

In microwave – Depending on the size of your turkey, microwave thawing might be an option. Check the manufacturers; directions and always remember to continue the cooking process after thawing in the microwave. 

Do not thaw the turkey on the kitchen counter. At room temperatures, a frozen turkey will thaw from the outside in. As the surface warms, bacteria will multiply. By the time the turkey is thawed, the surface bacteria could multiply to dangerously high levels. One cannot rely on cooking to destroy all bacteria because some produce toxins that cannot be destroyed through cooking.  Frozen turkeys should not be thawed on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement or on the kitchen counter.

The safe thaw of your Thanksgiving turkey is the first step in a joyous and food safe holiday celebration.

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