How to Defrost a Turkey in Time for the Feast

Learn our best method for thawing frozen turkey (hint: it just takes planning) just in time for a fabulous feast.

Come holiday season, one of the most pressing cooking questions is how to defrost a turkey that's been sitting in your freezer. The whole meal revolves around the main dish! How long does it take to thaw a turkey? The answer depends primarily 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 meal is closer. Or perhaps the turkey you bought was already frozen and you need to know if it should go straight to the fridge to start thawing, or into the freezer for a couple more days. Either way, before you start seasoning and roasting a delicious turkey, follow these guidelines to ensure the bird is fully thawed before you start cooking.

frozen turkey in the refrigerator

BHG/Nelly Cuanalo

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 thaw 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 cooking, but the sooner you cook it, the better for freshness—and so you can reclaim some space in your fridge.

Turkey Thawing Tip: Our Test Kitchen found that injected turkeys take longer to thaw than natural turkeys. Budget an extra day for thawing a 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 3½ to 4 pounds of turkey. An average-size turkey today takes about 4 days to thaw in the fridge. Weigh your turkey on a kitchen scale—if it won't exceed your scale's capacity—or a meat scale to know how long to thaw your turkey.

Turkey Thawing Chart

Using the guide of one day for every 3½ to 4 pounds of weight, here's how many days to thaw a turkey.

 Turkey Weight  Thaw Time
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 bird was injected with a solution of water, salt, and/or spices, add one additional day to the turkey defrost time using the chart above.

turkey defrosting in a sink

BHG/Nelly Cuanalo

How to Defrost a Turkey in the Sink

Thawing turkey in a sink 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, breast side down. Your turkey should be completely covered.
  • Change the water every 30 minutes, turning the bag 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. Estimate about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thaw in the sink.

raw turkey in sink under running water

BHG/Nelly Cuanalo

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.

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