How to Thaw a Turkey Depending on How Much Time You Have

There’s the fast way, the better way—and one method that doesn’t require thawing at all.
Hands rubbing butter on a raw thawed Thanksgiving turkey.
Photo by Tara Donne, Prop Styling by Alex Brannian, Food Styling by Cyd McDowell

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In an ideal world, you’re reading this article with plenty of time (ideally 3–5 days) to spare before the Thanksgiving meal—i.e., enough time to properly thaw a turkey. But if Thanksgiving morning has rolled around and you’ve got a completely frozen turkey on your hands, don’t panic—we’ve got a turkey thawing method for you too.

If you need to know how to quickly thaw a turkey, skip ahead to the second point outlined below. But even if you take the quick route this time, it’s worth knowing how to thaw a turkey the right way. There’s always next year.

How to thaw a turkey safely:

You can cook a turkey that’s fully thawed, of course, or one that’s never been frozen. You can even cook a turkey that is completely frozen. Cooking a turkey that’s partially frozen, on the other hand? That’s a recipe for disappointment. Turkeys thaw from the outside in, so one that’s roasted while still partially frozen will overcook around the edges while remaining undercooked in the middle.

Properly thawing turkey isn’t just about cooking a tasty bird—it’s a matter of food safety. When food falls in a temperature between 40°–140°F, it’s in what the USDA calls the Danger Zone—a range of temperatures “when food-borne bacteria multiply rapidly.”

Defrost your turkey properly for a bird that's beautiful and safe to eat.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Prop Styling by Megan Hedgpeth, Food Styling by Rebecca Jurkevich

That leads us to our first point: How not to thaw a turkey. The USDA has a whole page devoted to what it calls “The Big Thaw,” and—anticipating the devil-may-care cooks among us—they write, “Frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored.”

So don’t simply plop that bird on the countertop and let it come to room temperature while you flit about the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. There are a few quick-thaw tricks, which we will get to in a minute, but that is not one of them. You also want to avoid any thawing method that introduces heat (the defrost function of your microwave is a no-go, as is a soak in hot water).

The best way to monitor temperature? A thermometer.

Unless you picked up one of those Thanksgiving turkeys with a pop-up timer this year—and even if you did, since they can’t be trusted—you’ll want to have a thermometer on hand to know for sure when the bird is done. You’ll also need one to know for sure how long to thaw your chosen bird.

To ensure your bird doesn’t fall into the danger zone, it’s a good idea to take a turkey’s temperature from time to time as it thaws. Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey breast, and check in several different places. You’re looking for a thermometer reading above 32°F—above freezing, in other words—but below 40°F. Anything warmer than that is like an invitation to food poisoning, as pathogens that grow above 40° aren’t necessarily killed off in the oven.

The best way to thaw a turkey:

The best way to thaw a turkey is the tried-and-true, hands-off method used by countless home cooks: Thaw it gradually in the refrigerator. The refrigerator thawing method might be the most time-consuming, requiring a few days of forethought, but it has some serious advantages—safety, for one. As long as your fridge stays below 40° (if yours doesn’t, that’s a problem), you don’t have to worry about constantly checking on the bird to ensure it stays in the desired temperature range.

Ideally, place the frozen bird into your refrigerator upon bringing it home from the grocer—hopefully several days in advance, since it can sometimes take nearly a week to thaw completely. The big bird takes up a lot of space, so if you have an auxiliary fridge in the basement or garage, now’s the time to use it. Plan on 24 hours of fridge-thawing for every four to five pounds of turkey, say the experts at ThermoWorks, the company that makes the well-regarded Thermapen thermometer. For a 15-pound bird you can expect to wait about three days; see the full timetable below.

Remove the turkey from its original packaging and set it on a rimmed baking sheet or in a roasting pan while it thaws to keep any running juices contained. Once the bird is fully defrosted, proceed with a dry brine, or however else you plan to prepare it for cooking.

How long to defrost turkey in the refrigerator:

Thawing time is based on bird weight. Turkey is fully thawed when it reaches an internal temperature above 32°F, but below 40°F. How long does that take? Per the USDA:

  • 4 to 12 pounds: 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 5 to 6 days

This is the safest way to thaw a turkey, as it minimizes the possibility of human error. But if you’re short on time, we have a slightly more involved—yet still safe—route for you.

The fastest way to thaw a turkey:

If you’re reading this with plenty of days to spare, we applaud your preparedness. If not, there is a quicker path to safely thawed turkey than the one outlined above. Allow us to present the cold water method. It’s just as it sounds: By submerging it in ice water, even a 20-pound turkey can be defrosted in just 12 hours (ThermoWorks says to count on about 8 hours for a 15-pounder).

There are a couple of ways to go about this: First, you could thaw the turkey in your sink. This has the obvious drawback of rendering the sink unusable, and because the contents of the sink will be constantly pulled toward room temperature, it’s also not a set-it-and-forget-it-type situation. Regularly check the water’s temperature to make sure it never gets above 40°. Monitor the proceedings as often as every half hour, and if you see the temperature venturing in that direction, add more ice to set it straight, or drain the sink and fill it anew with cold water. (You’ll also want to seriously sanitize the sink afterward.) Whatever you do, *do not submerge the turkey in hot water—*it won’t speed up the thawing process, and it might invite some bacteria to the party.

You can also do a cold water thaw in a standalone bucket (a big one!), checking frequently to make sure the temp isn’t ticking up, or a cooler—the latter may hold its temperature a little longer than a plain old bucket, but you’ll still want to check the ice water frequently to make sure its temperature isn’t rising above 40°. Our tip: Get yourself a digital thermometer and program an alarm to go off above that temperature.

How to roast a frozen turkey:

Plot twist: Don’t thaw your turkey at all! If you’ve really forgotten until the last minute, you can stick a rock-hard, frozen turkey straight into the oven. Just follow the tips in the latter part of this guide to turkey temperatures and cooking times. Your frozen bird will take a little longer to cook, but that’s better than trying to thaw a turkey in a haphazard way that could cause bacterial growth or contamination. Remember, “a package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature,” says the USDA. Send your guests home with pie—not food-borne illnesses.

Feeding a crowd? Make turkey for twenty—just be sure to defrost well ahead of time.

Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Prop Styling by Beatrice Chastka, Food Styling by Laura Rege

The only thing left to decide is how to cook your turkey. Must you have a roast turkey, or will you attempt the deep-fry? We’ve covered just about every method in our collection of all-time greatest turkey recipes. As for the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner, that’s a breeze. Just don’t forget to turn the pan drippings into gravy.

This story includes reporting from Alex Van Buren and Sam Worley.