Cooking a turkey to perfection requires careful planning, especially if you bought it frozen. Wondering how to thaw a turkey safely while also making sure the roasted bird will be delicious? We’re analyzing the best methods to defrost a turkey, and for those emergency situations with zero planning, how to cook a frozen one!
Frozen turkey is easily available, and more affordable compared to the fresh variety. However, you need to deal with a gigantic bird that’s frozen solid. That can be a challenge, especially if you’re also tackling a long list of to-dos and your Thanksgiving turkey is still frozen.
Defrosting a turkey is not rocket science, and we’re on a mission to prove it! Keep reading to find out all the safe ways to thaw a turkey, as well as things you should never do.
How Much Turkey Per Person?
It might be a little more challenging to plan a turkey dinner, simply because both defrosting and cooking such an enormous bird takes a longer time than most meals we cook.
Buying the right turkey size is equally important. If you know how many guests you’ll be having, the math is super easy!
When you’ll be serving other dishes besides turkey, calculate about one pound of turkey per person.
If there are no other accompanying foods, calculate one and a half pounds of turkey per person.
On occasions when you’d like to have leftovers, or some guests haven’t RSVPd yet, go for 2 pounds of turkey per person.
Seems like a lot? Consider the whole bird also includes a lot of bone, cartilage, and other parts we don’t eat. It’s not the same as buying boneless meat.
For smaller get-togethers, you might be better off buying some turkey parts such as breast, legs, or wings.
Even when smoking, smaller parts will take less time, which is perfect if you’re in a rush or just starving!
Tip: Those undesirable parts, such as the neck, back, and shoulders, are excellent for making some turkey stock the following day!
How to Defrost a Turkey – 3 Methods
The three best methods for how long to defrost a turkey will depend on which method you choose and the size of the bird.
How To Thaw A Turkey In The Fridge
The refrigerator offers the ideal method to defrost a turkey (and any other meat). Here’s how to do it:
- Make sure the refrigerator is set to 40°F (4.5°C) or lower
- Keep the bird in the original packaging and place it breast side up on a tray or roasting pan with rack.
- Clear a space in the fridge so the bird will fit without touching surrounding items to avoid potential contamination.
- Place the turkey in the refrigerator and allow it to thaw using the time chart below. The general rule of thumb is to allow for 24 hours of thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey.
|Turkey Weight||Thawing Time (Refrigerator)|
|4-12 pounds||1-3 days|
|12-16 pounds||3-4 days|
|16-20 pounds||4-5 days|
|20-24 pounds||5-6 days|
Tip: Allow your turkey to thaw a day ahead just in case it doesn’t defrost as fast as expected. You can safely store a thawed turkey in the fridge for up to 2 days.
How To Thaw A Turkey In Cold Water
Using cold water to defrost a turkey is perfect when you don’t have that much time on your hands. Even a 24 pound bird will thaw in half a day, so here’s how this works:
- Leave the turkey in the original wrapping if it’s waterproof. If there are holes or tears in the packaging, remove it, place the bird in a large plastic bag and seal it so it doesn’t become waterlogged during thawing.
- Find a large pot or bucket in which the turkey fits and fill it with cold water.
- Place the turkey in the bucket or pot, making sure it’s fully submerged.
- Let the bird defrost based on the time chart below and change out the water every 30 minutes. The general rule of thumb is to allow 30 minutes of defrosting in cold water for every pound of turkey.
|Turkey Weight||Thawing Time (Cold Water)|
|4-12 pounds||2-6 hours|
|12-16 pounds||6-8 hours|
|16-20 pounds||8-10 hours|
|20-24 pounds||10-12 hours|
Note: Don’t use warm or hot water. It might speed up the thawing process, but it will keep the turkey at temperatures over 40°F for too long, increasing the risk of food poisoning.
How To Thaw A Turkey In The Microwave
Thawing a turkey in the microwave is the fastest option, but I suggest you only use this approach when there’s no time to use the cold water or refrigerator methods.
Defrosting any meat in the microwave can affect its texture. Your roasted bird will be edible, although not as good as when properly thawed and brined before cooking.
With that said, here’s how to do it:
- Look at the microwave’s instruction manual to see if the turkey size you need can fit inside. The manual should also include how many minutes per pound and the power needed to thaw a turkey.
- Remove all the wrapping and packaged giblets.
- Place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish that’s big enough to catch all the juices that usually escape during thawing.
- Transfer the bird to the microwave, set it to defrost function and turn it on.
- The basic rule is to allow about 6 minutes per pound when defrosting a turkey.
- Microwave in intervals, rotating and flipping the turkey several times as it thaws.
- Cook the turkey as soon as it’s fully thawed.
Note: You can allow a few minutes of rest between microwaving intervals to let the heat evenly distribute.
Things You Shouldn’t Do When Thawing A Turkey
- Never use warm or hot water to thaw a turkey. This encourages bacteria to develop and increases the risk of food poisoning.
- Don’t thaw a turkey on the counter, anywhere else in the house, or outside. In the house, the temperatures are too high and outside, there are temperature fluctuations that make this process unsafe.
- Don’t thaw a turkey in your kitchen sink. You won’t be able to use it for a good while and it will also need to be thoroughly sanitized once your bird is fully defrosted.
How Do You Know When Your Turkey Is Fully Thawed?
You took all the proper steps, the estimated time has passed, but you’re not sure if your bird is fully thawed?
Here are some key indicators that will let you know it’s 100% defrosted:
- The breast meat should feel supple and bouncy.
- The legs and wings and should flex easily in their sockets.
- There should be no ice crystals on the inside of the turkey.
- You can pierce the thickest meaty areas using a fork. If the meat feels difficult to poke, then your bird is not completely defrosted.
- If you have a food thermometer, insert it in the meaty portions of the breast or legs. Any reading under 34°F/1°C means the turkey’s still frozen.
How To Cook A Frozen Turkey
Life can get super busy and that’s okay! Even if you completely forgot to thaw your turkey or it’s partially frozen on the day of the event, not all is lost.
You can cook a frozen or partially thawed turkey and still get decent results. For a frozen bird, the total cooking time will be increased by 50% or more.
Based on USDA’s turkey cooking guidelines, here are the approximate cooking times for a frozen turkey, based on weight:
|Turkey Weight||Cooking Time (325˚F)|
|8-12 pounds||4 – 4 1/2 hours|
|12-14 pounds||4 1/2 – 5 3/4 hours|
|14-18 pounds||5 3/4 – 6 1/2 hours|
|18-20 pounds||6 1/2 – 7 hours|
|20-24 pounds||7 – 7 1/2 hours|
The safest way to make sure the turkey is properly cooked is using a food thermometer. You’ll know it’s ready when you get a reading of 165˚F (74˚C) in the thickest part of the breast, and innermost areas of the wings and thighs.
With that said, here’s how to cook a frozen turkey:
Note: Don’t try to take out the bag of giblets just yet. We’ll get to that later!
- Place the turkey in the oven and let it cook for 2 hours. Refrain from opening the oven door during this time.
- After 2 hours of cooking, you can finally inspect the bird. Using a food thermometer, check the innermost parts of the thighs and wings. You should get a reading around 100˚F (38˚C). The breast will be partially thawed, but still frozen in the center.
- Brush the turkey with cooking oil or melted butter and rub a generous amount of salt, pepper, and your favorite herbs and spices.
- Transfer the bird back to the oven and roast for another 30-60 minutes (depending on its size).
- Check the turkey and see if you can take out the bag of giblets. If it doesn’t detach easily, allow the turkey to cook for another 30 minutes, then give it another try. Don’t force it out, as to avoid small pieces of the plastic bag remaining inside the cavity.
- Remove any ice or liquid that may have accumulated in the cavity.
- Use the thermometer in the deepest parts of the breast, legs, and wings to see how close you are to the minimum safe reading of 165˚F (74˚C).
- Return the turkey to the oven and allow it to roast based on your last temperature readings, and the time chart above.
Tip: If your turkey is browning too fast in some areas, you can cover them with foil, and remove it within the last hour of cooking time to get a nice crisp.
No! Leaving any kind of meat on the counter for over two hours will encourage bacteria growth, which increases the risk of food poisoning. To learn some safe turkey thawing methods, see the dedicated sections above.
The fastest way to thaw a turkey that’s also safe is the cold water method. You’ll get a fully defrosted 15-pounds bird in 8 hours. Even a 24-pound turkey will thaw in 12 hours.
Yes, you can definitely cook turkey the night before (or even two days ahead) and reheat it for Thanksgiving dinner or any other event you’re hosting.
If you need oven time for other dishes on the big day, this can be a blessing! Reheated turkey will actually be juicier, but expect to lose that crispy skin.
After cooking, allow the turkey to cool completely. Carve it into large pieces: thighs, drumsticks, wings, and breast. Place the meat in a container and keep it in the fridge until it’s time to reheat it.
To reheat your roasted turkey, put the meat in a roasting pan, add a bit of chicken stock and cover. Bake at 325ºF (163ºC) for 45-60 minutes.
Carve it into slices and serve!
With all this information, I’m hoping that frozen solid turkey won’t be as intimidating as before.
Thorough planning, a little planning, or zero planning…there’s always a way to defrost a turkey safely, or even cook a frozen one.
One thing’s for sure: your guests will be very busy enjoying all those delicious turkey parts!