How Long To Thaw Turkey

drying a whole turkey with a paper towel
PHOTO: CAITLIN BENSEL; FOOD STYLING: TORIE COX

Hopefully you’re reading this well in advance of Thanksgiving (no shame, if not), and you are trying to be proactive about thawing a turkey. Or perhaps, you’re in a panic because it’s crunch time, and the Butterball is still hard as rock.

Whether you’re a planner or a procrastinator, we’ll explain how long you’ll need to thaw turkey using different (but safe) defrosting techniques, so you can plan accordingly.

Methods For Thawing Turkey

There are three main ways to thaw a turkey (safely).

1. Refrigerator Thawing

Placing a turkey breast-side up in the fridge overnight (still in its wrapping on a large plate or dish to catch any leaks) is our favorite way to thaw a turkey. It’s by far the safest way too, as the bird will stay at a food safe temperature throughout the defrosting process.

The drawback is that this method does require some time. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), you need about one day for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. So, if you’re working with a large bird, say 20 to 24 pounds, you’ll need to start thawing 5 to 6 days before Thanksgiving. Once thawed, you can store the turkey in the fridge for up to two days, so plan in advance and get that turkey thawing early.

2. Cold Water Thawing

Let’s say you forgot to pull the turkey out of the freezer days in advance. Don’t panic; there’s always the cold water thawing method.

For this technique you’ll fully submerge the turkey breast side-down (in its original packaging) in cold water, either in a large container, like a cooler, or in the kitchen sink. You’ll need to change out the water every 30 minutes.

Plan for roughly 30 minutes of defrosting time for every pound of meat. This means you’ll have to get started on the process early in the morning. It’s also important that you cook the bird immediately after thawing.

3. No Thawing

According to the USDA, it’s perfectly safe to cook a turkey directly from frozen. It will unfortunately take at least 50 percent longer to roast, so you’ll need to plan accordingly as the oven will likely be occupied all day long.

Microwave Thawing

You can also use the defrost setting on a microwave to safely thaw a turkey (consult your microwave’s user manual for guidance.) However, if we’re being honest, how many turkeys can really fit in a microwave? We recommend sticking with one of the methods above.

Southern Living Easiest Dry-Brined Turkey on a platter to serve, garnished with fresh herbs
VICTOR PROTASIO, FOOD STYLIST: CHELSEA ZIMMER, PROP STYLIST: CHRISTINE KEELY

EASIEST DRY-BRINED TURKEY

Factors Affecting Thawing Time

The general rule to keep in mind when it comes to thawing turkey is that the bigger the bird, the longer it will take. The thawing method you use also impacts how long the process will be. While the no thawing method will save you defrosting time, it will significantly increase cook time. Use this chart to gauge how long it will take to thaw your turkey.

Turkey WeightRefrigerator ThawingCold Water Thawing
4 to 12 lbs.1 to 3 days2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 lbs.3 to 4 days6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 lbs.4 to 5 days8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 lbs.5 to 6 days10 to 12 hours

Tips For Safe Thawing

Don’t start thawing that turkey until you’ve read these important tips.

  • Don’t leave the turkey out overnight on the counter—it’s a food safety nightmare.
  • For the cold water method, it’s crucial you use, as the name implies, cold water, not hot. Hot water can foster harmful bacteria and start to cook the outside of the bird.
  • If using the cold-water method, you may need to weigh down the bird with a heavy plate or cans to keep it fully submerged.
  • You can always start thawing the bird overnight in the fridge and finish thawing it using the cold water method if you run out of time.