From the Desk of Extension – Turkey Talk: Thawing

By: Caitlin Richardson | Dodge County UW-Madison Division of Extension FoodWIse

Thawed turkey ready for the oven!

When we think about the holidays, we often think about the special meals we eat and the cherished memories we will create. When preparing your holiday meal, there are some things to keep in mind to ensure that the food you are serving is safe to eat. Many times, turkey is the protein of choice for the winter/fall holidays. Below are some things from the CDC to keep in mind when preparing to thaw your turkey.

Never thaw your turkey on the counter. When using this unsafe method to defrost, the raw meat is in the temperature danger zone (40° F – 140° F) for a long period of time. This allows bacteria to grow very quickly in number which increases the chances of getting food poisoning. Instead, use one of the following safe thawing method options:

  • Refrigerator: place the turkey in a pan that has raised sides (to prevent leaking and making a mess in your refrigerator). The USDA has a great reference guide for how long it will take to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator:
4 to 12 pounds1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds5 to 6 days
Thawing turkey in the refrigerator.
  • Cold water: put your turkey in a leak proof bag (to prevent germs from getting all over your sink & the bird getting over watered). Then submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water. The water needs to be changed every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. The water needs to be changed to make sure that the turkey stays out of the temperature danger zone. Having cold water helps protect the turkey from getting too warm. Here is a USDA chart for estimating the time needed to thaw the turkey with this method. Once the turkey is thawed, it should be cooked right away that same day.
4 to 12 pounds2-6 hours
12 to 16 pounds6-8 hours
16 to 20 pounds8-10 hours
20 to 24 pounds10-12 hours
Thawing turkey wrapped and submerged in cold water.
  • Microwave: when using this method to thaw, make sure to follow the specific microwave manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper thawing. Once the turkey is thawed, it should be cooked right away because this method of thawing actually starts to cook the bird in some areas. It is unsafe to hold partially cooked food.
  • Cooking the bird frozen: Did you know turkeys can actually be cooked in their frozen state? It’s true, they can. According to the USDA, the cooking time will take at least 50% longer than what is recommended for a fully thawed turkey. Just remember to take out the giblet packages and make sure the final internal temperature of the bird is at least 165° F in its thickest part.

Stay safe and healthy this holiday season! For more information, check out the USDA Turkey Basics website or contact Caitlin Richardson in the Columbia County Extension office. Email:; phone: 608-742-9693



USDA Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing (  this link was shortened from it’s original form)

USDA Turkey Basics homepage:

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