How to thaw a frozen turkey safely

As the Thanksgiving holiday is approaching, a crucial step in the preparation process is thawing your turkey safely. Turkeys are safe indefinitely while frozen, however, as soon as it begins to thaw and becomes warmer than 40 °F, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply. There are only three recommended methods below to unthaw your turkey. These methods can also be used for thawing hams or other meats as well.  Never thaw foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher, or plastic garbage bag; out on the kitchen counter, in hot water, outdoors, or on the porch as these are all unsafe methods that are not recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture. 

The first method is to use the refrigerator. Place your turkey as originally wrapped  on a shelf with a pan underneath it to catch any leaking juices. Allow approximately 24 hours for each four to five pounds of turkey to thaw. After thawing, it is safe to store the turkey for up to two more days. Here are more specific time frames for thawing turkeys in the refrigerator. 

  • 4 to 12 pounds will take 1 to 3 days to unthaw
  • 12 to 16 pounds will take 3 to 4 days to unthaw
  • 16 to 20 pounds will take 4 to 5 days to unthaw
  • 20 to 24 pounds will take 5 to 6 days to unthaw

The second method is to use the microwave. When using this method, be sure to follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instructions when defrosting a turkey or other meat product. Plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.

The third method is to use cold water. When using this method, submerge the turkey in its original packaging in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes. This will ensure the temperature of the water does not go into the danger zone. The danger zone is defined as food that reaches an internal  temperature between 41°-135° F. Changing the cold water every 30 minutes prevents the turkey from being in the danger zone producing bacteria growth. Allow about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to defrost. Cook immediately after thawing. Below are some specific thawing times for cold water usage. 

  • 4 to 12 pounds will take 2 to 6 hours to unthaw
  • 12 to 16 pounds will take 6 to 8 hours to unthaw
  • 16 to 20 pounds will take 8 to 10 hours  to unthaw
  • 20 to 24 pounds will take 10 to 12 hours to unthaw

You can also call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. If you have a question about meat, poultry, or egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). The Hotline is open year-round Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET (English or Spanish).

If you have any additional questions please contact,

Shakera Williams, MPH Assistant Extension Nutrition Agent Webster/ Claiborne Parishes at 318 371-1371 or by email The LSU AgCenter and LSU provide equal opportunities in programs and employment.