How to Defrost a Turkey In Time for the Feast
Come holiday season, one of the most pressing questions is how to defrost a turkey that's been sitting in your freezer. The whole meal revolves around the turkey! How long does it take to thaw a turkey? What's the best method to use? We'll tell you our best turkey-thawing method (hint: it just takes planning) and teach you how to defrost a turkey in the sink the safe way. No matter how you choose to defrost your turkey, be sure it's fully thawed before you start cooking. The fact that you're here shows you're off to a good start.
How long to defrost a frozen turkey mostly depends on the weight of the bird, but other factors, like how often your refrigerator is opened and if the turkey was injected or is "natural," also make a difference. Once you've mastered buying and handling a whole turkey, you may need to freeze it until your big meal is closer. See more about how long turkey keeps in the freezer. Or perhaps the turkey you bought was already frozen. Before you can start seasoning and cooking a delicious turkey, it needs to be well-thawed. Here are a couple of ways we recommend to defrost turkey.
How to Defrost Turkey in the Fridge
This is the best and safest way to defrost any poultry, meat, or fish. It's also totally hands-off: You just need to plan a few days ahead to be sure to allow enough time for the bird to fully thaw. Never try thawing at room temperature.
To thaw your turkey in the refrigerator:
- Keep turkey in its original packaging.
- Place turkey in a large baking dish with sides to catch any juices that may leak out as the turkey thaws.
- Leave turkey in your refrigerator until fully thawed. It may be kept in the fridge up to 4 days after thawing before you cook it, but the sooner you cook it, the better for freshness—and so you can reclaim some space in your fridge.
Defrosting a Turkey Tip: Our Test Kitchen found that injected turkeys take longer to thaw than natural turkeys. You may want to budget an extra day for thawing turkey if yours was injected with a solution of water, salt, and/or spices. Read the packaging carefully to see if this was done. Most turkeys we found in stores had been treated with this solution even if the packaging said all-natural. Don't panic, though—the solution added is there simply to help the turkey stay moist and to add flavor.
How long does it take to defrost a turkey in the fridge?
We found you need 1 day in the fridge for every 3.5 to 4 pounds of turkey. An average-size turkey today takes about 4 days to thaw in the fridge.
Turkey Thawing Chart
Using the guide of one day for every 3.5 to 4 pounds of weight, here's how many days to thaw a turkey.
- 3 to 4 pounds: 1 day
- 4 to 8 pounds: 2 days
- 8 to 12 pounds: 3 days
- 12 to 16 pounds: 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds: 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds: 6 days
Remember if your turkey was injected with a solution of water, salt, and/or spices, add one additional day to the chart above.
How to Defrost a Turkey in the Sink
Thawing turkey in a sink full of cold water is faster than thawing in the refrigerator, but it's not safe to leave it in the sink to thaw overnight.
To thaw your turkey in the sink:
- Keep the wrapper on your turkey and put it in a large, leakproof plastic bag.
- Fill the sink with cold water and immerse the turkey.
- Change the water every 30 minutes, turning the bag over occasionally.
Sink-Thawing Tip: Using this method to thaw your turkey allows you to do it the day of or day before roasting and store it in the refrigerator until cooking time.
How long does it take to defrost a turkey in the sink?
We recommended thawing a 4- to 12-pound turkey in cold water for 2 to 6 hours, a 12- to 16-pound turkey for 6 to 8 hours, or a 20- to 24-pound turkey for 10 to 12 hours (about 30 minutes per pound).
How to Speed Up Thawing in a Pinch
It has happened to all of us: We thought we allowed plenty of time for our turkey to thaw in the refrigerator only to find it's still a bit icy Thanksgiving day. Don't worry: You can still enjoy a delectable turkey, you just need to speed things up. Here are your options:
- Combine the refrigerator- and sink-thawing methods. Take your mostly defrosted turkey out of the fridge and give it the thawing-in-the-sink treatment for as long as it takes. You can also do this the day before to ensure the turkey is ready first thing Thanksgiving morning.
- Run cold water over and through the cavity of the mostly thawed turkey.
Safety Tip: Promptly clean up any splatters in and around your sink to prevent raw meat juices from touching anything else.
Ready to start cooking? Get our turkey roasting tips here.
With all that goes into putting together the Thanksgiving menu, thawing your turkey may actually be the easiest part, just don't forget to plan ahead.