Plan ahead to safely thaw turkey

November 19, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a turkey is safe indefinitely if kept frozen. However, if the bird is allowed to thaw to a temperature above 40 degrees, any harmful bacteria that might have been present before freezing can start to grow and multiply again. This can lead to foodborne illness in those who eat it.

That's why cooks must follow safe turkey thawing recommendations

As it thaws, a frozen turkey must be kept at a temperature that prevents or minimizes bacterial growth. There are three safe places to do this: in the refrigerator, in a cold water bath or in the microwave oven.

Thawing in the refrigerator

To thaw in the refrigerator, the temperature should be 40 degrees or below. Place turkey on a tray and allow approximately 24 hours of thawing time for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. If you have a 12- to 16-pound whole turkey, it will take three or four days to thaw in the refrigerator. A 20- to 24-pound bird will take five or six days.


When thawing turkey in the refrigerator, the USDA says it should be kept in its original wrapper and placed on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that might leak. Once thawed, the turkey can be kept in the refrigerator one to two days longer.

Thawing in cold water

For cold-water thawing, allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. Be sure the turkey is in leak-proof packaging or a plastic bag.

Submerge the turkey in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. For a 12- to 16-pound turkey, allow six to eight hours. For 20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours will be needed. Turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately after it is thawed.

Thawing in the microwave

For microwave thawing, follow the microwave oven manufacturer's instructions for defrosting a turkey. Make sure to buy a turkey that will fit in your microwave oven. Remove all outside wrapping before microwave thawing. Place on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that might leak. Immediately cook the bird after thawing in the microwave oven.

Cooking the turkey

If you have purchased a prestuffed, frozen turkey, it should not be thawed before cooking. Put the frozen bird directly into the oven, following package directions for proper handling and cooking.

You can turn your thawed turkey into a tasty, low-fat entree for your family and friends to enjoy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers these suggestions to lower the fat in turkey:

o Prebasted turkeys are high in fat. Buy a regular bird, if possible.

o Baste with broth instead of greasy drippings.

o To keep turkey fat out of the dressing, bake the dressing separately in a lightly greased pan.

o Eat less skin. A 3-ounce serving of light turkey meat with skin has 7 grams of fat; dark meat, 10 grams. A 3-ounce serving of light turkey meat without skin has 3 grams of fat; dark meat, 6 grams.

For more information, contact the USDA meat and poultry hotline at 888-674-6854 or go to

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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