The holidays are approaching, and if you’re in charge of cooking—or just want to check up on Mama’s food hygiene—you may have one question on your mind: Is it okay to thaw a turkey on the kitchen counter?
The short answer is, not really.
Of course, you can eat a turkey that has been thawed on a counter, and generations of us have grown up eating turkeys that sat out all night. But it’s not what modern food scientists recommend.
The Bacteria of It All
Today, both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the turkey pros at Butterball say that the best options for thawing a frozen turkey are either in the refrigerator or in cold water.12
What’s so dangerous about a turkey sitting at room temperature for hours and hours? One word: bacteria.
In the food safety “danger zone” (40°F – 140°F), potentially dangerous bacteria can grow rapidly.3 Unfortunately, you cannot see, smell, or taste that bad bacteria. You’ll only know it was there after everyone who eats the turkey is experiencing an upset stomach, or worse.
The Safe Ways to Thaw a Frozen Turkey
Skip the counter. Pick one of these two options for your annual turkey defrost.
Note: If you get a fresh turkey from a farmers’ market, farm, or grocery store, there’s no need to thaw. However, if you pre-order a frozen bird, here’s a safer way to thaw it (sorry, Mama):
Thaw in the fridge
To thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, leave it in its packaging or wrapper, and put the turkey on a tray in the fridge, breast side up. Then, just leave it alone.
While this method is easy, you do need to plan ahead. The USDA recommends allowing at least one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey. That means your 20-pound whopper will need five days to properly thaw in the refrigerator.2
Once the bird is thawed, be sure to cook it within two days.
Here’s another example: A 16-pound bird needs to thaw for about four days in the fridge and can safely last in the fridge for at least two more days. So thaw the turkey in the fridge six days before Thanksgiving.
Thaw in cold water
If you don’t have a few days to defrost your turkey—or can’t spare the room in the refrigerator—the cold-water method is another easy option.
First, find a container large enough to hold the turkey. (In a pinch, a large cooler, canning pot, or even bathtub can work.) Leave the turkey in its wrapper, and put breast side down in your container with enough cold water to cover the turkey completely.
Change the water every 30 minutes so the turkey stays cold while it thaws. It’s important to note that if your container is too small and your turkey isn’t entirely covered by cold water, keep it chilled by rotating it every 30 minutes or so. It will take at least 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thoroughly thaw, so plan accordingly. Once the turkey is thawed with this method, cook immediately.2