While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. As soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow again.
There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.
Refrigerator Thawing (Recommended)
The USDA recommends thawing your turkey in the refrigerator. This is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature. This method takes some time, so allow one day for each 4 – 5 pounds of weight. If your turkey weighs 16 pounds, it will take about four days to thaw. Once thawed, the turkey is safe for another two days, so you can start thawing it six days before thanksgiving (the Friday before Thanksgiving).
The other two methods (cold water and microwave) must be done immediately before you start cooking the turkey, so you’ll have to wait until Thanksgiving morning.
Cold Water Thawing
For the cold water method, leave the turkey in its original wrapping and submerge it in a sink (or container) full of cold water. It is important that the water be cold so that the turkey stays at a safe temperature. You should change the water every 30 minutes. Empty out the water and replace it with fresh cold water. With this method, allow 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound, so a 16 pound turkey will take 8 hours to thaw using this method (so you might need to start around 4 a.m. if you want to eat in the afternoon!). Once the turkey has thawed, cook it immediately.
Before you commit to thawing your turkey in the microwave, check your owner’s manual for the size turkey that will fit in your microwave oven, the minutes per pound and the power level to use when thawing a turkey. Remove all outside wrapping and place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak. Use the defrost function based on weight. As a general rule, allow 6 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in the microwave. Be sure to rotate it several times, and even flip it, during the thawing process.
If the turkey starts to actually cook instead of just defrost, let it rest for 5 minutes or so before you resume thawing. Partway through thawing you may wish to cover the tips of the wings and drumsticks with a small piece of foil to shield them from the microwaves and keep them from cooking. Once the turkey has thawed you should cook it immediately.
How NOT to Thaw a Turkey
In case you are wondering, here are some thawing methods that are not recommended:
– thawing a turkey on the counter, in the garage or on the back porch
– thawing a turkey in a brown paper grocery bag or plastic garbage bag
– using the dishwasher to thaw a turkey (with or without water)
– any method that is not the refrigerator, cold water, or the microwave
How to Cook a Frozen Turkey
If your turkey is still icy on Thanksgiving morning, don’t panic! It is perfectly safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state; it will just take longer to cook. A solidly frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer to cook than a thawed turkey. If your turkey is only partially frozen, remember that it will take a bit longer to cook. Use your food thermometer, and when your bird measures 165˚F in the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast, it is ready.
For more information on safe thawing methods, visit fsis.usda.gov.
Written by Marianne Gravely, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA.