By Vanessa Greaves

Before you can turn a rock-hard frozen turkey into the star player at your Thanksgiving feast, you're going to have to thaw that big bird. There are three ways you can safely thaw frozen turkey: slow, medium, and fast. Take a look at the guidelines below and choose the method and timeline that works best for you, whether you're a plan-ahead cook or need a last-minute solution.

Photo by Meredith

How to Thaw a Turkey

How long does it take a turkey to thaw? It depends on the method. Here are three safe ways to thaw a frozen turkey.

1. Slow: Thaw in the Refrigerator

Timeline: Allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. A 10-pound bird will take about 2 days to thaw completely.

Tips for fridge thawing:

  • Keep the turkey in its original wrapping while it's thawing.
  • Place breast-side-up in a baking pan to keep any drips from contaminating other foods and refrigerator surfaces.
  • You can hold the thawed turkey in the fridge for up to 2 days before cooking.

2. Medium: Thaw in Cold Water

Timeline: Allow approximately 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. A 10-pound bird will take about 5 hours to thaw completely.

Tips for cold-water thawing:

  • Keep the turkey in its original wrapping, and place it in a larger, leak-proof plastic bag. Squeeze out extra air and seal the bag.
  • Place the sealed bag breast-side down in a sink or bucket large enough so the turkey will be completely submerged. Fill with cold water. You may need to cover the turkey with a plate and place some heavy cans on top of it to keep it totally submerged. Change the cold water every 30 minutes.
  • Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

It is also possible to use a combination of the two methods: Use the fridge for the first two days of thawing, and finish in the sink early Thanksgiving morning.

3. Fast: Thaw in a Microwave Oven

Timeline: Read the user manual for your oven to get instructions for thawing a frozen turkey. Times and power settings will be vary from model to model. In general, it could take an hour or more on the defrost setting, depending on the size of the turkey.

Tips for microwave thawing:

  • Take the turkey out of its wrapping, and remove metal clips or tags.
  • Place the turkey breast-side up in a microwave-safe pan to catch any drips.
  • After the turkey is thawed, wash the inside of your microwave to prevent cross contamination.
  • Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

Turkey-Thawing Times

The times shown are approximate, and are based on thawing a whole frozen turkey. How long to thaw a turkey:

  • Thaw time in the fridge requires about 24 hours for every 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at about 40° F.
  • Thaw time in cold water requires about 30 minutes per pound in cold water, refreshed every 30 minutes.

10 to 18 pounds

2 to 3-1/2 days

5 to 9 hours

18 to 22 pounds

3-1/2 to 4-1/2 days

9 to 11 hours

22 to 24 pounds

4-1/2 to 5 days

11 to 12 hours

24 to 29 pounds

5 to 6 days

12 to 15 hours

We cannot over-emphasize food safety when it comes to thawing turkey. It's important to keep the whole turkey at a safe temperature throughout the thawing process to prevent bacterial growth that can lead to foodborne illness. That's why you never thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature on your kitchen counter, or in hot water.

Check out our collection of Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes.