How to Safely Thaw a Turkey

If you’re lucky enough to get a fresh turkey, simply refrigerate it until you’re ready to cook. However, most of us will be dealing with a frozen bird this holiday season. Thawing a turkey isn’t complicated, but it does require some planning.

Ideally, you want to defrost your turkey slowly in the refrigerator. By some guidelines, fully frozen turkeys need 24 hours in the fridge for every 5 pounds, but that can vary if your refrigerator runs colder or warmer than average.

Do the math: a 20-pounder might need 4 to 5 days! Heritage breeds and organic birds tend to be a little smaller, so you’re in luck if you’re a little behind. Most Organic Prairie turkeys range from 13 to 16 pounds, which would take 3 to 4 days to thaw.

Chart showing how long to thaw a turkey in the refrigerator.

If you don’t have that much time or room in your fridge to spare, the next best thing is thawing the turkey in a water bath for 6 to 8 hours. This is where a cooler comes in handy—just plop the turkey in, fill with water, and place out of the way (but not so out-of-the-way you forget about it—you do need to change the water every 30 minutes to keep it at an optimal 40 degrees or under).

Despite the USDA declaring the practice perfectly acceptable, it’s probably not the best idea to try to save time by stuffing a frozen turkey into a microwave. No one wants to end up with a frozen burrito scenario where the turkey is cold in the middle no matter how much you zap it. Burritos are small stakes—the fallout could be 100 times worse with a 15-pound bird and hungry family members on the way!

(Still have questions? Here’s more information on thawing all types of meat.)

Thanksgiving table set with roasted turkey breast centerpiece.

Roasting only a turkey breast is a great option for small gatherings or people who prefer white meat. It also avoids the issue of white meat and dark meat cooking at different rates.

Cooking Time Formulas

One of the biggest Thanksgiving myths is that cooking a turkey is an incredibly complex process. Sure, the average person isn’t likely to roast a 15-pound bird on the regular, but if you can roast a chicken, you have the basics down.

The main issue with turkey is that it’s one of the largest forms of poultry, and breasts and thighs require different cooking times for an optimal outcome.

If you have guests who enjoy piles of sliced white meat and don’t like dark meat as much, just order boneless, skinless turkey breasts or a couple bone-in turkey breasts, which will avoid the timing issue entirely. Spatchcocking or breaking the bird into parts and cooking breasts and legs separately are also good solutions for managing the white meat/dark meat cooking time conundrum.

Watch out for unreliable cooking times online. Many top search results for how long to cook a turkey say 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees F—5 hours for a 15-pound bird—but this is likely much longer than needed. Obviously, you don’t want to give your guests undercooked meat, but you also don’t want to choke them with tough, dried-out meat (pass the gravy!).

Instead, for a 14 to 18 pound unstuffed turkey, the USDA recommends 3 ¾ to 4 hours at 325 degrees F. Use this as a starting point and in the last 1 to 2 hours, take your turkey’s temperature regularly. Make sure the thickest part of the breast and thigh both reach 165 degrees F on a meat thermometer before declaring the turkey done.

Here’s a not-so-secret admission: turkey is well and good—and expected, obviously—but Thanksgiving is really about the sides. If your sweet potatoes, dressing (cooked outside the bird, preferably) and cranberry sauce shine, you’re golden. This holiday season, thaw your turkey confidently, rock your sides, and enjoy the time with good food and good company.

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