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Thaw Your Turkey Safely


It is a week before thanksgiving and you cannot cook the star of the show if it is frozen. Precautions must be taken to keep your turkey out of the temperature danger zone during the big thaw.

As long as a turkey is frozen, it is safe indefinitely, so don’t pass up those after holiday sales.  When it begins to thaw is when any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.

There are only three safe ways to 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 after the grocery store checkout. Take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer, or refrigerator, if you want to begin thawing it. They 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.

Planning ahead is important when thawing a turkey in the refrigerator. 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. To avoid cross contamination, thaw your turkey on a pan sheet with sides to catch any juices.

 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, foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

To safely thaw 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, not hot. Changing the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed is critical to safety. Cook immediately after thawed. Thawing this way will take 2 to 6 hours for a 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, your microwave is your last choice. Follow the manufacturer's instruction. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Do not hold partially cooked food to finish cooking later, because any bacteria present will not have been destroyed. A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked before refreezing.

Next week we will explore Giblet Gravy. Where they are located in the turkey, safely thawing and handling, as well as how to make giblet gravy to accompany your big bird.  

For your free copy of Talking Turkey, with additional information and recipes, contact the Miller County Extension Office, 870-779-3609 or visit us in room 215 at the Miller County Courthouse. We're online at, on Facebook at UAEXMillerCountyFCS, on Twitter @MillerCountyFCS or on the web at

By Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
400 Laurel Street, Suite 215 Texarkana AR 71854
(870) 779-3609

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