How To Safely Thaw Turkey or Cook It Frozen

In Foodie Tips & Tidbits by Les Kincaid

How to Safely Thaw Turkey Plus Roasting Tips

by Chef Les Kincaid


Although not regularly used in Thanksgiving dinners until the mid-1850s the cooking of turkeys has now become synonymous with the celebration and it is estimated that some 50% of the 270 million turkeys consumed in the US each year are eaten on that day. Yes, the turkey has become a potent icon since the War of Independence, with our founding fathers including Benjamin Franklin arguing for it to replace the eagle as the national symbol.

One of the glitches in preparing the turkey is following the instructions attached to the bird when it is purchased. Here are several ways to thaw your bird.


How to Thaw a Turkey


1 frozen turkey, any size


Roasting pan with rack or other pan large enough to hold the turkey, for a refrigerator thaw

Large plastic bag, like a garbage bag or extra-large zip-top bag, for quick-thawing

Large pot or bucket, for quick-thawing

Refrigerator Thawing

Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan: This will catch any juices that may leak from the turkey’s packaging as it thaws. The rack helps to elevate the turkey and provide circulation on all sides for even thawing, but isn’t strictly necessary if you don’t have one or are using a different pan.

Transfer the turkey to the refrigerator: Make sure there is nothing touching or leaning against the turkey. Do not place anything else in the pan with the turkey; juices may leak from the turkey as it thaws and can contaminate anything else in the pan.

Thaw the turkey completely in the fridge: Total thawing time will depend on the size of your turkey; refer to the chart below. If you have time, give yourself a day or two as a buffer just in case your turkey takes longer to thaw than expected.

Thawed turkeys can be kept for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Refrigerator Thawing Times

Allow about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey.

4- to 12-pound turkey — 1 to 3 days

12- to 16-pound turkey — 3 to 4 days

16- to 20-pound turkey — 4 to 5 days

20- to 24-pound turkey — 5 to 6 days


Quick Thawing Your Turkey

Place your turkey in a large plastic bag: The packaging on your turkey isn’t necessarily waterproof. To prevent the turkey from getting waterlogged during this quick-thaw process, put it in a large plastic bag to protect it.

Place the turkey in a large pot or bucket: Make sure the turkey fits inside the pot and can be fully submerged.

Fill the pot with cold water. Do not use warm or hot water to speed thawing — this puts the turkey within the “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F for longer than is safe, and your risk of food poisoning increases drastically. Weigh the turkey down with a pot or other heavy pan if it floats.

Change the water every 30 minutes.

Continue until the turkey is thawed: Refer to the chart below


Cold Water Thawing Times

Allow about 30 minutes for every pound of turkey.

4- to 12-pound turkey — 2 to 6 hours

12- to 16-pound turkey — 6 to 8 hours

16- to 20-pound turkey — 8 to 10 hours

20- to 24-pound turkey — 10 to 12 hours


How to Know When Your Turkey Is Thawed

Check the breast meat: When thawed, the breast meat should feel pliable and springy.

Check the legs: When thawed, the legs and wings should move loosely in their sockets.

Check the inside: The inside should be free of ice crystals and you should be able to easily remove the packet of giblets.


No Time to Thaw? Cook It Frozen!

Yes, you can cook a frozen or partially frozen turkey in the oven! It is safe to do and makes a surprisingly good turkey. Cook the turkey at 325 degrees F and increase the cooking time by about 50 percent if totally frozen or by about 25 percent if your turkey is at least partially thawed. The turkey is done when it registers at least 160 degrees F in all areas. Do not however deep-fry or grill a frozen turkey. The internal temperature will increase about 5 degrees after it is removed from the oven. this gives you the perfect temperature of 165 degrees. DO NOT OVER BAKE. Be free of ice crystals and you should be able to easily remove the packet of giblets.

How to Roast a Fresh or Thawed Turkey

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated onion

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 14-pound turkey, giblets removed, washed and dried

Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Fresh thyme, for garnish

Mix the smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, dried thyme, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper in a bowl. Sprinkle some of the spice rub inside the cavity of the turkey. Separate the skin from the breast meat with your fingers, starting at the top of the breast and sliding to the right and left, then working down. Massage some of the rub onto the meat under the skin. Sprinkle the remaining rub on the turkey’s skin. Place the turkey on a sheet tray and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours so the flavors can marry.

Set a rack at the lowest position in the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Remove the turkey from the refrigerator to bring to room temperature. Tie the legs together and tuck the wing tips under. Place the turkey in a roasting pan. Drizzle the outside of the turkey with a few tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast the turkey about 3 hours, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees F. Transfer the turkey to a platter, cover loosely with foil and let rest 30 minutes before carving.