ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — The Thanksgiving meal is incomplete without a turkey. While it is definitely safe when frozen, as soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow again. 

The US Department of Agriculture gives three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.

Three ways to thaw a turkey

Refrigerator Thawing (Recommended)

The USDA recommends thawing a turkey in the refrigerator. According to the USDA, this is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature. This method takes some time, so it is recommended to allow one day for each 4-5 pounds of weight. If the turkey weighs 16 pounds, it will take about four days to thaw. Once thawed, the turkey is safe for another two days, so one 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 one has to wait until Thanksgiving morning.

Cold Water Thawing

For the cold water method, the USDA recommends leaving the turkey in its original wrapping and submerging 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. One can change the water every 30 minutes 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. Once the turkey has thawed, cook it immediately.

Microwave Thawing

Before thawing a turkey in the microwave, the USDA says to check the owner’s manual for the size of turkey that will fit in a microwave oven, the minutes per pound along with 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 six 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 defrosting, let it rest for five minutes or so before resuming thawing. Partway through thawing, it is recommended to cover the tips of the wings and drumsticks with a small piece of foil to shield them from microwaves and keep them from cooking. Cook immediately once done with thawing.

How NOT to Thaw a Turkey

According to the USDA, 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 the turkey is still icy on Thanksgiving morning, it is still safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state. A solidly frozen turkey will take at least 50% longer to cook than a thawed turkey. USDA advises using a food thermometer, and when the 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.