How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey, According to a Food Safety Expert

There are three approved methods for defrosting a turkey for Thanksgiving—and the countertop is not one of them.

Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without a beautiful, golden-brown turkey at the center of the table. Whether you plan to roast, smoke, or deep fry your bird, there's a vital step that every home cook must tackle ahead of the holiday: thawing.

"Thawing a turkey safely is important to ensuring that you keep you and your loved ones healthy," says Brittany Saunier, executive director at Partnership for Food Safety Education. There are a several methods that are safe and won't compromise the flavor of the turkey, and the technique you choose will depend on how much time and space you have.

Keep in mind that bacteria can grow rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees, and time spent in this "danger zone" increases the risk of food poisoning. Ahead, the easiest and safest ways to thaw a turkey, whether you need a last-minute solution, or you've been carefully planning the Thanksgiving feast for weeks.

Prepare Your Space

When working with raw meat, cleanliness is key. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before and after touching the turkey. You'll also need to wash any surfaces that come in contact with the poultry (including cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops) with hot, soapy water. Don't allow the turkey and its juices to touch other foods, like fruits and vegetables, as this gives the bacteria an opportunity to spread from one food to another. Also, avoid putting cooked foods on surfaces that your raw turkey has touched.

Thaw in the Refrigerator

Thawing your turkey in the refrigerator is the safest and easiest technique because you'll have the most temperature control with this method. Saunier says to start by clearing a space in your refrigerator. If the bird is big, you may need to move shelving up or down to make more room. "You also want to ensure that your refrigerator's temperature reads at 40°F or below," says Saunier. "This is an effective way to reduce the risk of food poisoning, especially for pregnant women and elderly people."

As a rule of thumb, allow 24 hours of thaw time for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat. Place the turkey at the bottom of your refrigerator in a shallow pan and its original packaging to prevent its juices from dripping on other foods in your refrigerator. Saunier says if you plan to keep the neck and giblets, leave them in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook them. Once thawed, the turkey can stay refrigerated for one or two days before cooking.

frozen butterball turkey on grey surface
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Thaw in Cold Water

If you don't have enough room or access to a refrigerator, you can follow the cold-water method for thawing your turkey. "Leave the turkey in its original packaging then place it in a clean and sanitized sink or pan and submerge in cold water. It's important to change the cold water every half hour," Saunier says. Thawing your turkey this way takes less time than it does to thaw it in the refrigerator but requires more hands-on attention. Allow half an hour of thaw time for each pound of meat, so a 12-pound bird will need to thaw for six hours.

A turkey thawed using the cold-water method should be cooked immediately. "Cook the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as measured by a food thermometer in the thickest part of both the bird's thigh and breast," Saunier says. If the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing inside should also reach 165 degrees before it's done. It's best practice to allow more cooking time when planning Thanksgiving dinner to ensure everything runs according to schedule.

Thaw in the Microwave

You may be able to thaw your turkey in the microwave, assuming that your turkey is small enough or that you have a larger microwave. (As a rule of thumb, you'll find that a 12- to 14-pound turkey is the maximum size most microwaves can accommodate.) Consult your owner's manual for the minutes per pound and the recommended power level to use when thawing a turkey. The United States Department of Agriculture instructs cooks to remove all the original packaging and place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices.

Allow six minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in the microwave and flip it several times during the process. If the turkey starts to cook instead of thaw, let it rest for five minutes before resuming. Halfway through thawing, the USDA instructs cooks to cover the tips of the wings and drumsticks with a small piece of plastic wrap to prevent them from cooking. Once the turkey is thawed, cook it immediately.

Never Leave a Turkey on the Counter to Thaw

Leaving the turkey on the counter to thaw is not a safe method. According to Saunier, "a package of meat or poultry left thawing on the counter for more than two hours is not at a safe temperature and falls within the danger zone." Instead, use one of the three methods outlined above to thaw your Thanksgiving turkey.

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