How To Thaw A Turkey Fast

a Thanksgiving table setting with turkey and casserole
PHOTO: ANTONIS ACHEILLOS

If you are trying to find out how to thaw a turkey quickly, odds are you’re standing near a still-frozen turkey. It is probably Thanksgiving Day (maybe the day before, if you are lucky), and guests are due to arrive shortly. Pies are cooling, green beans are simmering, corn pudding is prepped, and your heart is thumping in your chest because you just realized you forgot to thaw the turkey—or perhaps the turkey didn’t thaw as it was supposed to. Now emergency mode has set in.

The good news is, there are several ways to thaw a turkey quickly. Your choices are to thaw in cold water or in the microwave (but it’s not recommended), or to move the frozen bird straight to the oven to bake.

Read on to find out how to thaw a turkey fast while still following food safety guidelines and avoiding cross-contamination. You can be the hero of this Thanksgiving story as you deliver a moist on the inside, golden on the outside bird to your awaiting guests.

How To Quickly Thaw a Turkey in Cold Water

The cold water thaw method works if you still have about a day to defrost the bird. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), you should allot 30 minutes of soaking in cold water per pound of turkey. And be prepared to cook it as soon as it is thawed.

All you need is some cold water, a plastic bag large enough for your turkey (store wrapping isn’t waterproof), and a vessel large enough to hold the turkey fully submerged.

You may be tempted to use your sink, but don’t. You will need your sink throughout the day for prep, and there is always the danger of contamination from exposure to the raw turkey which then requires thorough cleaning you don’t have time for.

Here’s how to do it.

  1. Place the turkey (still in its original wrapping) in a plastic bag, and make sure air is released before sealing it.
  2. Move the bagged turkey to a large pot or bucket. Ensure there is enough space to fully submerge the bird.
  3. Fill the vessel with cold water. Weigh the turkey down if it starts floating up. Do not be tempted to use warm water to speed things up. You don’t want the turkey entering the 40°F to 140°F danger zone where bacteria grows and the risk of food poisoning ratchets up.
  4. Change the water and rotate the bird every 30 minutes to keep the process moving safely. When you reach the time calculated, check to ensure it’s thawed. The breast should feel springy, the legs and wings should move freely, and the inner cavity should be free of ice and the packet of giblets should be easily removable.
  5. Once proper thawing is achieved, cook the turkey immediately.

Time Check

Allot 30 minutes of soaking in the cold water for every per pound of turkey. For a 13-pound turkey, you’ll need about 6 1/2 hours to thaw the bird.

Can You Thaw a Turkey in the Microwave?

You can thaw a turkey in the microwave, but you shouldn’t. The problem with trying to thaw a whole turkey in a microwave is parts of it may start cooking while other parts (like the inside) are still frozen. Microwave thawing also presents the danger of cross-contamination as your turkey will be unwrapped as it is thawing.

If this is your chosen route, the USDA does have some guidance: “Check your owner’s manual for the size turkey that will fit in your microwave oven, the minutes per pound, and power level to use for thawing. Remove all outside wrapping. Place on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak. Cook your turkey immediately. Do not refreeze or refrigerate your turkey after thawing in the microwave oven.”

Can You Cook a Frozen Turkey?

If you didn’t realize the turkey was still frozen in time for the cold water method, and you aren’t going to attempt the microwave method, what now? Put that whole frozen turkey directly in the oven.

Sounds perfect, right? The complication is that roasting a frozen turkey takes roughly 50 percent longer than a traditional, properly-thawed roasting. The good news is this approach is quite simple. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line your roasting pan with foil, and put a roasting rack in it to keep any liquid that thaws from turkey away from the meat. This also ensures the turkey will roast rather than steam.
  2. Remove the store wrapping, place they turkey breast-side up on the rack in the roasting pan, and move it to the oven for cooking.
  3. After 30 minutes, check to see if the giblets can be removed. Make sure the plastic caging or any other packaging is out so you don’t have a melted-plastic-turkey situation. You also can begin basting at this point, if you choose to do so.
  4. Put the turkey back in the oven, and begin monitoring it via a thermometer. Continue to baste throughout cooking. 
  5. Once it reaches 165°F (the USDA-recommended safe temperature for turkey), it is done. Be sure you check the meatiest parts and those closest to the bones as they take the longest to cook. Remove it from the oven and allow the turkey to rest for 30 minutes before carving and serving.