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How To Thaw a Frozen Turkey for Thanksgiving

Frozen turkeys are convenient and bought in advance. When it's time to thaw your Thanksgiving bird, consider either a refrigerator or cold water thawing method. Find answers to your every question on how to thaw your turkey the right way here.
How To Thaw a Frozen Turkey for Thanksgiving
How To Thaw a Frozen Turkey for Thanksgiving
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Created from scratch in the SideChef Kitchen, where recipe inspiration and ingredient experimentation are a way of life.
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Created from scratch in the SideChef Kitchen, where recipe inspiration and ingredient experimentation are a way of life.
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We have all heard scary stories about the turkey - the star of the Thanksgiving table - still frozen on Thanksgiving morning. To avoid the culinary disaster of having a crispy turkey on the outside with a still-raw interior, let's break down the turkey thawing options and time required.

How NOT to Defrost a Turkey

Before we get to the part explaining the right way of thawing, let's answer some common questions.

Can You Defrost a Turkey on the Kitchen Counter?

No, you should never thaw your bird on the countertop! Room temperature raw turkey can attract harmful bacteria.

Turkey is a large bird and takes some time to thaw completely, so you should never try to defrost it at room temperature. Once the outside of the turkey thaws to above 40 degrees F (5 degrees C), it enters the “danger zone.” Many types of harmful bacteria will start to multiply fast. Although most of the bacteria will be killed during cooking, the toxin produced by Staphylococcus aureus is heat-resistant and will survive the oven’s heat.

How Can I Defrost a Turkey Overnight?

If you plan to defrost a large turkey overnight, unfortunately, there is no way to do it without going against every food safety practice.
In case of a total emergency, make chicken instead, or cook the turkey in parts. You can buy fresh or frozen turkey breasts, drumsticks, thighs, and wings. While it's not your traditional Thanksgiving table centerpiece, it is just as delicious.

Can I Thaw a Turkey in Hot Water?

No, you really shouldn't. For the same reasons, we've mentioned above. Don't try any crazy hacks like trying to blowdry it with hot air or bathing your Thanksgiving turkey in a jacuzzi...that’s how you end up in an emergency room with food poisoning.

Can I Quickly Defrost Turkey in the Microwave?

Depends. Are you planning to serve it to people? If the answer is yes, then please don't try to thaw it in the microwave. It will never defrost evenly; some parts will get cooked... just don't.

If you microwave thaw your turkey, it'll be more suitable as a football replacement than consuming as a part of a festive dinner.

Best Ways to Safely Thaw a Turkey

We recommend two methods, and the one you choose depends mainly on how much time you have. Option 1 is the easiest but takes longer; Option 2 will save time and is slightly more labor-intensive.

Option 1: Thaw Turkey in the Refrigerator

This is the right way to do it, but it does take quite a long defrosting time.


  1. Free the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, so there's no cross-contamination of any kind. Food safety!

  2. Leave the turkey in its original packaging and place it on a tray at the bottom of the refrigerator, breast side up.

  3. Allow at least one day of thawing for every 4 lbs. of turkey. Therefore, a 12-lb. turkey will take about three days to defrost fully.

Here's a turkey defrosting chart for the refrigerator method.

Option 2: Thaw Turkey in Cold Water

This is a quicker way to defrost your bird.


  1. Keep the turkey in its original wrapper.

  2. Place the turkey in a cooler, sink, or tub large enough to cover it completely with cold water (cold tap water will do), breast side down. Water temperature should be below 40 degrees F (5 degrees C).

  3. Change the water every 30-60 minutes to keep the turkey chilled, and plan on one pound thawing every 30 minutes. Therefore, a 12-lb. turkey will take about 6 hours to defrost fully.

Here's a turkey defrosting chart for the cold water method

Speed Up the Thawing:

You can combine the two methods and speed up the thawing process safely. If your turkey is not yet fully defrosted in the fridge, you can switch to the cold water method and speed up the process a bit. But for the love of pumpkin, please don't attempt any of the unsafe methods mentioned above!

Once Your Turkey Is Ready

Here are some of our favorite Thanksgiving turkey recipes for you to use once you are done with safely defrosting it. Enjoy!

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