Proper thawing is critical to the success of your turkey on Thanksgiving day. There are a couple of different ways to thaw a turkey but only one way to verify it’s completely thawed. We have the thermal tips you need to plan when to begin thawing your turkey and to ensure you do it safely.
Use an Instant-Read Thermometer
The most important thing you can do when thawing a turkey is to use an instant-read thermometer, like our Thermapen Mk4®, to verify the internal temperature of your turkey in multiple locations before putting it in the oven. That’s right, you measure the temperature of your turkey before you cook it!
⚠ Do Not Cook a Partially Frozen Turkey
You can actually cook a frozen turkey and you can cook a thawed turkey, but you SHOULD NOT cook a turkey that is partially thawed and partially frozen. If the turkey meat is not at a uniform temperature before you cook it on Thanksgiving morning, you’re asking for disaster.
The dramatic temperature gradients in a partially frozen turkey, from its thermal center to its completely thawed exterior, will cause it to cook unevenly. By the time the frozen area comes to its pull temperature, the outermost layers of the turkey will be woefully overcooked.
Turkey must be kept at a safe temperature during “the big thaw.” While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again. —Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
The Best Method: How to Defrost a Turkey in the Fridge
The preferred method for thawing a turkey is to put your frozen turkey breast-side UP on a rimmed sheet pan or tray in your refrigerator set to 37°F (3°C), allowing it to thaw gently.
Allow at least 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds (1.8-2.3 kg) of frozen turkey. A 20-pound (9.1 kg) turkey will take 4 to 5 full days to thaw in a refrigerator. This method is the least labor intensive but requires more time.
➤ Plan Ahead
For most of us, this means buying a frozen turkey on the Saturday or Sunday before Thanksgiving and letting it rest on the very bottom shelf of your refrigerator until Thursday morning. To be safe, you could buy your turkey a full 7 days in advance.
A thawed turkey can be stored in the refrigerator for as much as 3 days before it needs to be cooked. It will still be perfectly fresh and ready for cooking on Thanksgiving.
The Speed Method: How to Defrost a Turkey in a Cold Water Bath
If you don’t have several days at your disposal, you can try the speed method.
Water has a much greater molecular density than air. Heat transfer from the molecularly dense water to the frozen turkey happens much faster. Allow 30 minutes per pound (per .45 kg), so it will still take some time.
➤ Cooler or Bucket
- Place your unopened turkey (it must be in airtight wrapping) breast-side DOWN in a bucket or cooler and fill with water to cover. Your turkey may float at first, that’s okay. It will begin to sink as it thaws.
- Use an alarm thermometer like the ChefAlarm® with its high alarm set to 41°F (4.5°C) to track the water temperature during a water thaw. If you like, you can take advantage of the ChefAlarm’s built-in timer to keep track of your hours.
- Or spot-check the water’s temperature every half hour with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen, and add ice to keep the water at 40°F (4.4°C) or below.
- ⚠ This is very important! If the water gets above 40°F (4.4°C) while the turkey is thawing, bacteria may begin to grow that could survive the cook.
- This process may require 1-2 large bags of ice—so be prepared.
- A 20-pound (9.1 kg) turkey will 10 hours to thaw using the cold water method.
- If you have an extra refrigerator in your basement or garage, arrange its shelves to make room and place the bucket with the cold-water-thawing turkey inside the fridge and close the door. Keep the cooler’s lid tightly closed to help maintain a steady, cool water temperature.
➤ Kitchen Sink
Q: Can I thaw my turkey in the kitchen sink?
A: Yes, but proceed with caution.
- You can use a basin or a sink filled with ice water for thawing your turkey but you will need to exercise extreme caution not to splash the “turkey water” onto your countertops. Any time water splashes or the stream of water from the tap is on, droplets of the possibly contaminated water are sprayed into the air. Have a box of anti-bacterial wipes handy for any spills.
- Monitor the temperature of the water bath in your sink to ensure that it stays below 40°F (4.4°C) to avoid bacteria growth. The best way to do this is with an alarm thermometer, like a ChefAlarm.
- Dangle the probe in the water without submerging the transition from the probe to the cord (unless it’s a Pro Series® Waterproof Needle Probe) and set the high alarm to 40°F (4.4°C). When the alarm sounds (usually every 20 minutes to half hour), either drain the basin and add fresh cold water or drain just a little water and add ice cubes to the water bath until the alarm stops sounding.
- You can also check the water temperature with an instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen every 30 minutes, and adjust the water temperature as needed. This can be a laborious process, but quickly thawing in cold water can get you out of a pinch if you find yourself with a partially frozen turkey and very little time left.
Verifying that Your Turkey is Thawed!
Whichever method you use, verify the internal temperature of your turkey with an instant-read thermometer, like the Thermapen. Push the probe tip through the wrapper, deep into the breast in several places. Check deep in the thigh and next to the neck cavity too.
Each time you probe the meat, pull the probe tip out of the turkey slowly and watch as the temperature changes on the display. You are looking for temperatures no cooler than 30°F (-1°C) and not higher than 40°F (4.4°C) throughout.
➤ If you encounter lower temperatures (below 30°F [-1°C]) anywhere in the bird, continue thawing using either method above until the turkey is properly thawed.
⚠ How Not to Thaw a Turkey
A frozen turkey should never be thawed on a kitchen countertop at room temperature, on your back porch, or in the garage. These methods of thawing will leave the outer layers of the meat in the temperature danger zone (40-140°F [4.4-60°C]) for an extended period of time while the innermost, lowest temperature area finishes thawing out.
Dry Surface = Crispy Skin
Lastly, thoroughly dry the surface of the turkey before putting it into the oven (or smoker or oil). Water on the surface of the meat will slow down the cook, and cause uneven browning. The heat of the oven or smoker must first work to evaporate the surface moisture before the cooking really begins.
➤ Pat your turkey dry with paper towels right before cooking.
This is particularly important if you will be brining your turkey (soaking it in saltwater). Be sure to get the entire surface of the turkey (even the inside surface of the main cavity and neck cavity) nice and dry before seasoning. Then, slather on the butter or oil and spices (whatever your recipe calls for) and start cooking.
If you want extra crispy turkey skin, a little extra planning and effort up front can pay real dividends. Air-drying, or leaving your turkey uncovered in the refrigerator for the morning (8 hours) or the entire day before (24 hours), will help produce a crispier skin.
Turkey Thaw Day
Turkey Thaw Day is what we call the Saturday before Thanksgiving. For most turkey sizes, this is the perfect day to place your frozen turkey in the refrigerator–allowing plenty of time for thawing without letting the thawed turkey overstay it’s welcome in the fridge before cooking.
Mark “Turkey Thaw Day” on your calendar now to plan ahead and simplify your holiday.
Learn more about turkey with our other important turkey tips…
Master the critical turkey temperatures: be your family’s Thanksgiving hero this year!