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Thanksgiving Day is coming up fast, but let’s face it: Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is no easy feat. From knowing when to start thawing a turkey to how much turkey to make and the perennial question of will I have enough food for my guests, there’s a lot of pressure to make this delicious holiday perfect.
Beyond the chaos involved in preparing a dinner of epic proportions, food safety should be the top priority.
After all, friends and family should end the day with leftover pumpkin pie — not food poisoning.
That’s why the researchers at Eat This, Not That! compiled a few must-follow tips for how to thaw a frozen turkey: a process that, if done incorrectly, has the potential to bring a ton of illness-causing bacteria to the holiday table.
While there are a few different ways to thaw a bird, nearly all of them require starting the process a few days prior to turkey day, so it’s important to prep accordingly and start the process early.
How to thaw a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving
1. Thaw it in the fridge
Don’t thaw a turkey on the kitchen countertop where it can become a nesting area for nasty bacteria — or your cat’s midnight snack. Instead, use the fridge.
Before you place the bird directly in the refrigerator, lay it on a deep rimmed tray or or a roasting pan lined with a wire rack, which will catch any leaks. Place it breast side up (the plumpest area in between the wings) and wrap it tightly with plastic wrap. Place the tray or pan on the lowest shelf in your refrigerator to prevent the risk of foodborne illness. The lowest shelf in your refrigerator should house the food that needs to cook at the highest temperature, like poultry.
When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So, if the turkey weighs 12 pounds, plan for it to defrost in the fridge for about three days. If 16 pounds or more, make sure it’s placed in the fridge four to five days before the holiday arrives. As a rule of thumb, thawing your turkey the weekend before Thanksgiving will ensure that it’s fully defrosted by the time you need to cook it on Thursday. Plus, this gives you plenty of time to brine it either with a wet brine or dry spice rub.
Thaw times by weight
- 10-pound turkey: 2 days of thawing in the refrigerator
- 12-pound turkey: 2 to 3 days of thawing in the refrigerator
- 14-pound turkey: 2 to 3 days of thawing in the refrigerator
- 16-pound turkey: 3 to 4 days of thawing in the refrigerator
- 18-pound turkey: 3 to 4 days of thawing in the refrigerator
- 20-pound turkey: 4 to 5 days of thawing in the refrigerator
2. Wrap the turkey when thawing it in cold water
If you plan to thaw the bird in cold water, make sure to seal it in a large, leak-proof plastic bag before submerging it. This will prevent any cross-contamination and ensure that the bird won’t absorb any extra water during the thawing process. Then, fill a bowl or bucket that’s big enough to fit the bird with cold tap water. Submerge the wrapped turkey in the water and change the water every 30 minutes in order to help to ward off any contaminating bacteria.
Allow 30 minutes of thawing time for each pound of turkey, which translates to about six hours for a 12-pound turkey. A 15-pound bird will thaw in eight hours. Adjust the thawing time based on the size of the turkey you purchased.
Still having trouble determining the thaw time of your Thanksgiving turkey? Check out Butterball’s thawing calculator — which allows people to choose either the refrigerator or cold-water method.
Thaw times by weight
- 10-pound turkey: 5 hours of thawing in cold water
- 12-pound turkey: 6 hours of thawing in cold water
- 14-pound turkey: 7 hours of thawing in cold water
- 16-pound turkey: 8 hours of thawing in cold water
- 18-pound turkey: 9 hours of thawing in cold water
- 20-pound turkey: 10 hours of thawing in cold water
3. Consider thawing the turkey using a microwave
Believe it or not, you can thaw a turkey in the microwave, but proceed with caution. Before deciding whether to thaw the Thanksgiving centerpiece in the microwave, make sure it actually fits in there … and has some extra space to spin. If the bird is small enough, remove the plastic wrap and place it in a microwave-safe dish or baking dish. Push the defrost button, punch in the weight of the bird and let the microwave work its magic.
If your microwave lacks a proper defrosting function, determine how long the bird needs to thaw in there based on its weight. Six minutes per pound is a good rule of thumb. Since microwaves tend to heat things unevenly, make sure to rotate and flip the meat throughout the thawing process.
Thaw times by weight
- 10-pound turkey: 1 hour of thawing in the microwave
- 12-pound turkey: 1 hour, 12 minutes of thawing in the microwave
- 14-pound turkey: 1 hour, 24 minutes of thawing in the microwave
- 16-pound turkey: 1 hour, 36 minutes of thawing in the microwave
- 18-pound turkey: 1 hour, 48 minutes of thawing in the microwave
- 20-pound turkey: 2 hours of thawing in the microwave
4. Always confirm that the bird has thawed completely
To ensure the bird is totally defrosted, reach one hand into the hollow part and check for ice crystals. Then, using a fork, poke the thick parts of the bird and make sure they’re no longer hard or icy. If they are, the turkey definitely needs more time to thaw.
5. Don’t wait — cook the turkey right away
After it’s thawed, the turkey must be cooked immediately. That’s because once the bird is defrosted, bacteria can begin to regrow, according to the USDA. That’s bad news for anyone planning to hit the malls the next day for some Black Friday bargains.
Those invisible bugs have the potential to cause salmonella and other bad bacteria, which could make your loved ones sick if consumed. If you overestimated the amount of time the turkey needed to defrost and it’s good to go a few days before the holiday, it’s safe to store the bird in the fridge — just don’t keep it in there for more than three to four days.
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