What Should I Know About Turkey Defrosting?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Unless you purchase a fresh, wild turkey, chances are good that the bird you’re planning to roast will be a frozen turkey from a grocery store. This means you’ll need to allow sufficient time for defrosting before you can “dress” the bird for dinner. However, be aware that the process of turkey thawing can take several days, depending how much the bird weighs. Generally, the rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours of turkey defrosting for every 5 pounds (2.27 kilograms) of meat.

Surprisingly, many people are unsure of how to defrost a turkey the right way, in spite of efforts to educate consumers on the safe handling of foods in recent years. Hopefully, though, most people are now aware that defrosting frozen turkey on the countertop or in a cold oven isn’t safe. Doing so can lead to toxic bacterial overgrowth that won’t be killed during cooking. In addition, these old fashioned methods of turkey defrosting carry the risk of contamination of these kitchen spaces, and even of other foods.

It might be tempting to think that soaking or rinsing a frozen turkey in hot water is a safe method of turkey defrosting, especially if the bird is still unwrapped. However, this isn’t the case at all. That’s because any bacteria in residence prior to the turkey being frozen will start to multiply as soon as the outer surface of the food reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 degrees Celsius), even if the center of the bird is still frozen.

Fortunately, most frozen turkeys are equipped with written instructions regarding safe defrosting and handling measures on the packaging. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers more specific guidelines on turkey defrosting safety. In fact, according to the USDA, there are three different methods. The trick to each is to provide a constant temperature and to minimize exposure to air.

The safest and easiest method of turkey defrosting is to simply let the bird sit on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in its original wrapping. As previously mentioned, allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds (2.27 kilograms) of turkey. Keep in mind, though, that if your refrigerator temperature is set below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 degrees Celsius), it may take an additional full day for the bird to completely defrost. Once fully thawed, the turkey can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 additional days before cooking. In addition, fully defrosted turkey can be refrozen without cooking.

The next best method of thawing a turkey is to use the defrost feature in the microwave. However, this may not be feasible with a very large bird. In addition, it’s important to remember two things when using this method. First, the turkey should be cooked immediately after defrosting. It must also be cooked thoroughly before it can be frozen again.

The last method of safe turkey defrosting is to submerge the bird in a clean sink full of cold water for approximately 30 minutes per pound. However, the wrapping on the frozen turkey must be free of tears or leaks of any kind or else bacteria can enter. In addition, the water must be drained and the sink refilled with fresh water every 30 minutes. As with the microwave method, the turkey should be cooked right after thawing and before refreezing.

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments

Planch

So how do those quick defrost turkeys work? I have always wondered how they could make such a big bird like that defrost in just a few hours, or however long it takes.

My friend said it was because they had put some kind of chemicals in the bird to react with the air and make it defrost, but that seemed a little off to me -- surely we would be able to taste a difference if it was like that, right?

So can you explain to me how this works? I am really wondering about this, since I was considering using a quick defrost turkey for Christmas, but really want to learn more about it before I go out and buy one.

Thanks guys!

lightning88

Oh my, the whole turkey defrosting thing. My family had to go through this long, drawn out battle with my grandmother when they first started out those turkey defrosting guides, because she was a die-hard leave it on the counter person.

And to be perfectly fair, it's not like any of us ever got sick growing up eating her turkeys at holidays, but I honestly don't know how, because she would really just take that thing out of the freezer and put it in a garbage bag in the sink.

Now we've finally gotten her to agree to let us defrost the turkey in cold water, but she won't have anything to do with it -- and she still complains that the ice gives it a "taste," even though since the turkey is frozen to begin with, I'm not quite sure how that happens...

EarlyForest

Excellent article! I know so many people who think that the best way to defrost a turkey is by running it under hot water, when in fact that is so, so dangerous!

I'm so glad that you all provided a good, safe method of defrosting a turkey, since nobody likes to get e coli for Thanksgiving.

Also, if you want to make things super easy, then there are a lot of places online where you can type in how much your turkey weighs and get the appropriate turkey defrosting time, which is really good for the math-illiterate like me.

Thanks again for a great article!

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    • A small or medium turkey can be defrosted in a microwave.
      A small or medium turkey can be defrosted in a microwave.
    • It's usually best to defrost a turkey in a refrigerator over several days.
      It's usually best to defrost a turkey in a refrigerator over several days.
    • A roast turkey.
      A roast turkey.
    • A turkey.
      A turkey.