If you're hosting dinner for Thanksgiving, heaven knows you've got a busy week. You'll need to plan and shop for the Thanksgiving menu, decorate with Thanksgiving centerpieces and table settings, and you should probably bake at least one or two Thanksgiving desserts.
So don't kick yourself if you suddenly can't remember when you need to start thawing that frozen-solid turkey so that it's oven-ready on Thanksgiving morning.
Whether you're reading this two weeks out or mere hours before guests arrive, we'll help you safely thaw your frozen turkey so that everyone's able to enjoy a slice or two of their favorite light or dark meat.
Best method: Thaw in the refrigerator.
When time is your friend, the fridge is the easiest and safest way to thaw a frozen bird. That's because, if it doesn't sit out at room temp, no part of it can get above 40 degrees, entering the temp range that the FDA calls "the danger zone," which is when bacteria can start growing.
Simply leave the turkey in its packaging or wrap in a plastic bag, set it in a pan, and put it on a shelf in your refrigerator where it can thaw. You'll want to allow roughly 24 hours for every five pounds of bird.
So a 20-pound turkey will need to be in the fridge no later than the Sunday morning before Thanksgiving to defrost completely, while a smaller 10 pound turkey will need to go in by Tuesday morning.
Here's are some general thaw time and weight guidelines:
1 to 7 pounds: 1 day
8 to 11 pounds: 2 days
12 to 15 pounds: 3 days
16 plus pounds: 4 days
Quick(er) method: Defrost your turkey in the sink.
If you don't have four days, you can defrost your turkey a little faster using the cold water method, but it will take more attention and won't necessarily defrost as evenly. For this method, you will place the turkey in cold water (not warm!) in your sink.
First, place a pan or bucket in the sink (or clean the sink and plug it up), then fill it partway with cold water. Place your frozen turkey in and set a timer: You'll need to change out the water every 30 minutes to ensure that the surface of the meat doesn't rise above 40 degrees.
You might be thinking, "won't hot water will work faster?" Do not do this! The hot water will allow the surface of the meat to spend way too long above 40°F, while the center of the bird is still frozen, meaning bacteria could grow on it and your guests could end up getting sick.
To do this, leave the turkey in its packaging or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap to keep it from getting waterlogged. Completely submerge it in water by placing something heavy on top.
If you go with this method, you'll need about thirty minutes per pound. So a 10-pound turkey should be ready for the oven in around 5 hours, while a 20 pound turkey will need at least 10 hours to fully defrost. And it has to go right into the oven when it's defrosted. Don't put a turkey you've defrosted in the sink back into the fridge.
Here are some more basic times and weights for this method:
1 to 7 pounds: up to 3 1/2 hours
8 to 11 pounds: up to 5 1/2 hours
12 to 15 pounds: up to 7 1/2 hours
16 plus pounds: at least 8 hours
Help! I completely forgot to defrost it, and guests are due soon!
Okay, don't worry! If it's Thanksgiving morning and you've discovered that your turkey is still frozen, you can roast a turkey straight from the freezer. It's not the best way to cook a turkey, but it'll work, it'll be safe, and it's better than trying to find takeout on the third Thursday in November.
Here's what to do: Preheat your oven to 325°F, put the turkey in the roasting pan, make sure anything inside the cavity is removed (neck, gizzard, etc), dust the top with plenty of salt, and then put it in the oven for about 50% longer than you planned to cook the thawed turkey for. (A 20 pound turkey that would have needed 4 to 4 1/2 hours at 325°F, will now need 6 to 6 3/4 hours.) That's it. That's the method.
You can't brine or really butter a frozen turkey, but it will thaw and then cook in the oven. Begin checking the temperature about 30-45 minutes before you expect it to be done.
Use a thermometer, and when the breast meat close to the bone (but not touching) says 160 - 165°F, then take it out of the oven and let it rest for about 30 minutes. It'll be cooked through and ready to carve and eat. (In case you need it, here's how to carve a turkey like a pro. You're welcome.)
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