How to thaw a turkey

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

For price and convenience around holiday meal planning, frozen turkeys have the edge over fresh ones. But because they are larger than the frozen meats home cooks typically encounter, they can pose a challenge when it comes to defrosting them.

It pays to have a plan as you head into Thanksgiving season, so here’s everything you need to know about dealing with frozen turkeys.

How long is frozen turkey good for?

“Producers begin storing turkey in frozen storage as soon as the holiday season ends,” according to the USDA, so the frozen turkey you pick up for this year’s Thanksgiving meal may already be almost a year old. When properly held, frozen turkey can safely last for years, so you’re in the clear to buy frozen turkey at any point during the year to cook for Thanksgiving. In fact, “Turkeys can be kept in the freezer indefinitely,” Per the Minnesota Department of Health. But for the best quality, they recommend cooking a frozen turkey within one year.

What’s the best way to thaw a turkey?

The best and easiest way to thaw a frozen turkey is the refrigerator. Set the bird, still in its packaging, breast-side up on a tray or in a baking dish (to catch any potential leaking juices) in the bottom of the fridge. It should take about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey for it to fully thaw. So for a 15-pound turkey, you’ll need three to four days.

How do you thaw a turkey quickly?

If you don’t have that much time, place the turkey, still in its packaging, in a clean sink or other large container, cover it with cold water, and change out the water every 30 minutes. This method will take about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thaw completely, which means a 15-pound bird will take approximately 7 hours 30 minutes. (Timing may vary.) If you have even less time and a small enough bird, you could even go so far as to defrost it in the microwave. (Consult your microwave’s manual for more information on how, and note that the microwave may start to cook the turkey.) If you use either the microwave or the water method, you must be prepared to cook your turkey immediately, according to the USDA.

And remember: “Leaving your meat to thaw on the counter is never, ever a good idea, no matter the temperature of your house or how cold the food feels to the touch,” staff writer Becky Krystal wrote. “Similarly, you should never leave food on your porch or other places outside to thaw. Period.”

How to safely defrost meats, soups, baked goods and more

Can you cook a frozen turkey?

Yes! You can cook a turkey that is partially or completely frozen. (I speak from experience after cooking a partially defrosted bird to pretty good results.) Is it ideal? No, but even “cooking a whole turkey from a rock-solid, frozen state can yield respectable results,” former Post deputy food editor Bonnie Benwick wrote. The main catch is that it can take up to 50 percent longer to cook, which can be a big deal if you typically rely on the oven for preparing other parts of the meal. “Last-minute might not be how you want to roll on Thanksgiving,” Benwick wrote, “but it’s nice to know it works.”

Recipe: Desperation Turkey (From Frozen)

How long can you keep a thawed turkey in the fridge?

Turkeys thawed in the refrigerator can stay in the fridge for up to two days per the USDA. Turkeys thawed by other methods should be cooked immediately.

Can you refreeze a thawed, previously frozen turkey?

If your plans change and you end up with thawed turkey that you can’t or don’t want to cook, you may be able to salvage it for later. If you defrosted your turkey in the refrigerator, then it can be safely refrozen. (Just note: The quality may degrade.) If the turkey was thawed in cold water or the microwave, then you cannot freeze it again.