How — and when — to defrost your turkey

Thawing tricks for the speedy or hands-off

Published November 21, 2021 1:30PM (EST)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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We don't need to tell you that Thanksgiving involves a little prep . . . OK a lot of prep. Peeling potatoes, cubing stale bread for stuffingrolling out pie doughfolding buttery biscuit dough over itself once, twice, three times for pillowy rolls. But defrosting the turkey is one of those things that seems like it should just happen without much effort. While you're busy filling the fridge with casseroles and potatoes and pies — there's not a lot of room (physical or mental) to add a raw, frozen bird. But (surprisingly!) the turkey won't magically thaw the morning of. In fact, depending on how big the bird is, you might even need to take it out now. (If you're reading this in September, it's probably too early . . . but if it's the week of Thanksgiving, it's definitely time to take the turkey out of the fridge to thaw it).

How to defrost a turkey

The easiest and safest way to defrost your turkey is in the refrigerator (kept at 40°F). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds. So if you have a 15-pound bird, you'll need to start defrosting at least three days in advance. If you're planning to brine your turkey, you may want to allocate for an extra day, as brining is best done over the course of at least 24 hours. Make sure to place the wrapped turkey breast-side up on a roasting rack near the back of the refrigerator, where it will remain consistently cold. You might also want to keep it on a bottom shelf to prevent cross-contamination from any possible leakage. Once your bird has thawed, cook it within the next 4 days.

Pro tip: Leave the turkey resting in the refrigerator unwrapped and uncovered at least overnight, as this will help to dry out the skin so it gets super crispy and golden-brown as it bakes in the oven. Sure, butter and olive oil will help seal the deal too, but dry skin is the key to crispy (but not burnt!) turkey skin.

How to quickly defrost a turkey

If you don't have room for turkey in the refrigerator (or you're reading this on Wednesday afternoon — hey, it happens!), the second way to quickly defrost a turkey is in cold water. Simply cover the turkey breast-side down in cold water, then change the water every 30 minutes. In this method, budget 30 minutes of thawing per pound. So, plan 7 hours for the same 15-pound turkey as above, then cook immediately. This may mean that you have to wake up really early on Thanksgiving morning in order to adequately thaw and cook the turkey . . . but you were probably going to set the alarm for 3 a.m. anyway, right? Or maybe this is the year you decide to host a Thanksgiving dinner rather than a luncheon.

In cold water-thawing, it's very important that the entire turkey remains submerged in 40°F water. Chances are that your tap water won't be cold enough, so add some ice cubes. If you don't have a large enough container, try using your sink, ice chest, or even a bathtub (just be sure to thoroughly sanitize these vessels afterward to remove any bacteria that spread from the raw bird). Another way to keep the turkey covered is to hold it underwater with a heavy plate. Make sure to stir the water occasionally to break up the cold envelope surrounding the bird.

How to defrost a turkey in the microwave

First of all, we'd be super impressed if you have a microwave large enough to accommodate a 15 to 20 lb turkey (and we'd have some questions, too . . . like where did you buy it? How do you store it?). But if you're one of the lucky ones that is able to thaw a turkey in the microwave, start by removing the outer wrappings and any plastic inserts (including the packaged giblets) from the turkey. Next, set the microwave to the defrost setting. According to the USDA, the rule of thumb is 6 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in the microwave. Rotate and flip the bird several times as it thaws in the microwave.

How to not defrost a turkey

We've spent a few minutes here chatting about the best ways to thaw a turkey for Thanksgiving. But there are plenty of hacks for defrosting Thanksgiving that are not so safe. First, do not leave your turkey on the counter. Even if the air is room temperature and could theoretically cause your turkey to defrost more quickly, it's dangerous to eat any meat that has been sitting out for more than three to four hours. Plus, you're more likely to spread bacteria and cause cross-contamination this way.

By Katie Macdonald

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Cooking Food Food52 Holidays How-to Thanksgiving Turkey