UACES Facebook The Big Thaw - What You Need to Know to Thaw Your Turkey Safely
skip to main content

The Big Thaw - What You Need to Know to Thaw Your Turkey Safely

How to safely thaw your Thanksgiving turkey.

Nashville, Ark. - Chances are the turkey you will purchase for Thanksgiving will be frozen. To keep your turkey out of the temperature danger zone during “the big thaw,” precautions must be taken.

If a turkey is frozen, it is safe indefinitely to eat, however quality is lost the longer it stays frozen. It is when it begins to thaw that bacteria can begin to grow.

Despite what many might think, a package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is NOT at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the “temperature danger zone,” between 40 and 140˚F, which is a temperature where food borne bacteria multiple rapidly.

Safe ways to thaw your turkey

There are only three ways to safely thaw your turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven. No other thawing method will assure that your turkey will remain safe to eat.

 Food safety begins immediately at the grocery store checkout. Take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer, or refrigerator (if you want to begin thawing). Frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored or assured.

Using the refrigerator

 When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, plan ahead. Allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40˚F or below. Some areas of a refrigerator may keep the food colder than others. A turkey placed in the coldest part will require longer defrosting time. In other words, in the refrigerator, a 4-to-12-pound bird would take 1 to 3 days to thaw, 12-to-16-pound bird would take 3 to 4 days, 16 to 20 pounds would take 4 to 5 days, and a 20-to-24-pound bird would take 5 to 6 days to thaw. You should start thawing in the refrigerator this weekend.

 A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. If something happens and you do not immediately get to cook your bird, meats thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there will be some loss of quality.

Cold Water

To safely thaw your turkey in cold water, allow about 30 minutes per pound. First, be sure the food is in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Tissues can also absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product.

Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. You must change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed. Thawing this way will take 2 to 6 hours for 4-to-12-pound bird, 6 to 8 hours for a 12-to-16-pound bird, 8 to 10 hours for a 16-to-20-pound bird, and 10 to 12 hours for a 20-to-24-pound bird. Unlike the turkey thawed in the refrigerator, a turkey thawed by the cold-water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.


If you forgot to allow ample time to thaw your turkey, you can do it in the microwave. Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instruction when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present will not have been destroyed. A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked before refreezing.

For more information of thawing foods safely, contact the Howard County Extension Office at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. You may also e-mail me at and I will be glad to send you some information on food safety. You can also contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline to answer any of your holiday food safety questions. You may contact them via their website or by telephone at 1-888-674-6854.

Recipe of the Week

This recipe is great for your holiday meal. It is extremely easy to prepare and tastes great! This recipe is part of the Right Bite Cooking School, a diabetic cooking school offered through the Cooperative Extension Service. If you would like to participate in cooking programs, contact me at 870-845-7517. I’ll be glad to put your name on a mailing list to keep you informed of scheduled programs.

Apple Cranberry Salad Toss

  • 1 head of lettuce, torn into bite size pieces

  • 2 medium apples, sliced

  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped

  • 1 cup dried cranberries

  • ½ cup green onion, sliced

  • ¾ cup vinaigrette dressing

  1. Toss lettuce, apples, walnuts, cranberries, and onions in large bowl.
  2. Add dressing; toss to coat. Serve immediately.

                 Yield: 8 Servings

  1. Note we used Romaine lettuce for added nutrients and eye appeal. Consider changing the vinaigrette dressing for a balsamic dressing. The nutrient value will change depending on the dressing you choose.
  2. Nutritional Information per Serving: Calories – 140, Protein - 2 g, Carbohydrate - 24 g,


By Jean Ince
Howard County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517