How Long to Thaw a Turkey

How long does it take to thaw a turkey? Longer than you think. Learn the ins and outs of safely thawing a whole turkey for your next big Thanksgiving celebration.

Turkey thawing in a fridge illustration

Alison Czinkota

What’s one obstacle standing between you and a highly anticipated turkey feast? A freezer. Most whole turkeys come frozen, and for the most stress-free and tastiest roast bird possible, you’ve got to thaw that thing. 

We have the lowdown on proven methods, from “safest yet slowest” to “oh snap.”

The Safest Way to Thaw a Turkey

Without a doubt, the safest and easiest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. 

Why? As a turkey thaws, bacteria that may have been present before the turkey was frozen can spring back to life and multiply, like the undead in a horror movie. In the fridge, the turkey stays at a steady temperature, one that keeps it out of that bacteria-happy danger zone.

Keep the turkey in its original wrapping. Triple-bag it or place it on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any turkey juice that seeps out as it thaws.

The drawbacks? It takes days, and a turkey takes up valuable space in the fridge. In the past I’ve used (with permission) the nearly-empty refrigerator in my office break room.

How Long to Thaw Turkey in the Refrigerator

Allow 1 day for every 4 pounds. By that logic, a 12-pound turkey will take 3 days to thaw in the fridge. The bigger the bird, the longer the thawing time.

Weight of turkey ÷ 4 = Number of days takes to thaw in the refrigerator

Need another example? A 22-pound turkey will take over 5 days to thaw (5 1/2, for those who did the math). 

Thawing a Turkey in Water

This works, but it’s not preferable. One reason is you wind up with a big tub of salmonella-laced water to deal with. So, if you can help, it, use a large, clean tub (like a 5-gallon bucket) and not your kitchen sink.

Completely cover the turkey (in its original packaging) with cold water. Dump the water every 30 minutes and add fresh cold water. It’ll take about 30 minutes per pound to defrost this way. Let’s say you have a 20-pound turkey. It would take 600 minutes, which is 10 hours. (Yes, that’s a good chunk of time to be changing water out every half hour.) 

Weight of turkey x 30 = Number of minutes to thaw in water

Then divide the number of total minutes by 60 to get the number of hours. For example, a 15-pound turkey would take 450 minutes. Divide that by 60 and you get 7 1/2 hours.

Thawing a Turkey in the Microwave

Although it’s safe, we don’t recommend thawing in the microwave. Parts of the turkey may start to cook before others even defrost. Besides, the turkey needs to fit in the microwave in the first place.

If it does, unwrap it and set it on a rimmed, microwave-safe platter to catch any juice, and then follow your microwave’s instructions to use the defrost setting based on weight (the USDA estimates 6 minutes per pound). 

How to Cook a Totally Frozen Turkey

Last straw? Panicked because your turkey is a giant ice cube? You can cook the whole thing frozen. Put it in the oven at 325°F and know it’ll take 50 percent longer to cook than a thawed turkey will at the same oven temp. 

Never Thaw a Turkey at Room Temperature

Pretty please, do not sit a turkey out a room temperature to thaw. It creates ideal conditions for dangerous bacteria to multiply. Don’t play crapshoot with the safety of those coming to your gathering. It’s safer to put a frozen turkey in the oven, as we describe above.