Here’s How Long It Takes to Defrost a Turkey, and How to Do It Safely

Defrosting a turkey the right way doesn’t require skill, but it does take time — probably more time than you’d guess if this is your first time If your turkey showed up more than a week before the big day, you likely (and correctly) froze it. That means it will need to be carefully thawed and, spoiler alert: you should have already started.

While there are viable shortcuts to defrosting a turkey, you may risk having a rubbery bird when cooked, or exposure to possible foodborne illness. The best way to thaw out a frozen turkey is beautifully simple (don’t even think about using the microwave). If you need that frozen bird thawed faster, there’s one method that will safely defrost a turkey in much less time.

This story is part of 12 Days of Tips, helping you make the most of your tech, home and health during the holiday season.

Here are the best ways to safely thaw your turkey — one slow and one a bit quicker — ahead of Thanksgiving this year. If you’re serving something other than turkey, such as brisket, rib roast or duck, and need to thaw out your entree, these same techniques work best for most cuts of meat.

Should you defrost a turkey on the kitchen counter?

No. It’s not safe, nor is it recommended to defrost a turkey or any poultry at room temperature. The key to safely thawing a turkey is not letting any part of the flesh rise about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for any extended period or foodborne bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. While you might be able to get away with room temperature defrosting of smaller cuts of meats, because turkeys are typically so large and take so long to defrost, you really can’t safely defrost a Thanksgiving turkey this way.

The best way to thaw a turkey: Use your refrigerator

This method is the most time-consuming option, but will net the best results: The USDA suggests 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, which means you’d need to set aside a few days or up to a week for a large bird. This method requires the least amount of effort. All you have to do is put your turkey in a container to catch drips and let it hang out (covered) in the fridge. 

To make sure your turkey (and any other meat) you’re serving is safe to eat, get a meat thermometer. It’s an affordable investment in both helping you figure out when your food is ready, and keeping your guests safe.

Details

How long does it take to defrost a frozen turkey?

Here’s a snapshot of how long it could take you to thaw a frozen turkey of varying weights. See? It’s definitely wise to have a plan and set an alarm for the day you turkey needs to come out of the freezer.

  • 4 to 8 pounds: 24 hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds: 36 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 6 days

This turkey was thawed using cold water.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The fastest (safe) way to defrost a turkey: Use cold water

This method for defrosting a turkey is faster than in the fridge, but it requires a few more steps. First, put the turkey in a leak-proof bag and put it in a cold tap water bath in the sink or a large receptacle (such as a cooler or clean recycling bin). The USDA recommends that you change the water every 30 minutes. I’ve found that it’s easiest to defrost your turkey in a cooler that has a spigot: This lets you easily drain the water to make room for fresh water — or drain it completely once the bird is defrosted. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw your turkey this way.

It takes a little work to go from frozen turkey to a tasty main course.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Can you defrost a turkey in the microwave?

The USDA says that you can defrost your turkey in the microwave as long as you follow the product instructions and cook it immediately after thawing. Even if you can fit that big bird inside, I’d be extremely wary of relying on a microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat. In fact, I’d suggest avoiding the microwave at all costs. Even chickens are difficult to defrost well with a microwave and they’re generally a fraction of the size.

If anything, use the thaw setting for just a few minutes to get it started and then employ a combination of the cold water bath and fridge methods above to defrost your turkey. Don’t use the entire time that your microwave suggests for defrosting this amount of frozen meat, especially all in one go. It won’t be pretty, I promise you.

For more turkey tips, explore our guide on the best way to prepare your turkey and nine yummy turkey alternatives to try this year. Plus, check out the best meat delivery services to secure all your holiday mains. 

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