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.

By Vanessa Greaves
Updated September 18, 2020
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There are three ways you can safely thaw frozen turkey: slow, medium, and fast. Take a look at the guidelines below for how to thaw a turkey and choose the method and timeline that works best for you, whether you're a plan-ahead cook or need a last-minute solution.

1. Slow: Thaw in the Refrigerator

How long it takes: Allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. A 15-pound bird will take about 3 days to thaw completely.

Tips for thawing turkey in the fridge:

  • 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

How long it takes: Allow approximately 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. A 15-pound bird will take about 7½ to 8 hours to thaw completely.

Tips for thawing turkey in cold water:

  • 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

How long it takes: 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 thawing turkey in the microwave:

  • 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

Credit: Michael Pohuski/Getty Images

The times shown are approximate, and are based on thawing a whole frozen turkey.

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

Weight

Fridge

Cold Water

10 to 18 pounds

2 to 3½ days

5 to 9 hours

18 to 22 pounds

3½ to 4½ days

9 to 11 hours

22 to 24 pounds

4½ 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.

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