How Long to Defrost Turkey?

Last Updated on October 27, 2022 by E.Pery

Most people prefer purchasing frozen turkey for Thanksgiving because it is fresher than fresh turkey. However, there is nothing more upsetting than waking up on Thanksgiving day only to find that your turkey is still frozen!

To save yourself this horror, you need to master how long it takes to defrost a turkey ready for seasoning and roasting on holiday.

How Long To Defrost Turkey?
Photo de Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

How long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey?

How long to defrost a turkey primarily depends on its weight: the heavier the turkey, the longer it takes to thaw.

Other factors such as the method of defrosting, whether the turkey is natural or injected, and how often your refrigerator door is opened also make a difference in determining the defrosting time.

Mastering how long it takes to defrost a turkey will enable you to know whether the frozen turkey you just bought goes into the freezer for a couple of days or straight to the fridge to start thawing.

How to safely thaw a frozen turkey

When thawing a frozen turkey, you cannot overemphasize food safety. It would be best if you kept the whole turkey at a safe temperature throughout the process to prevent the growth of bacteria that could cause a severe foodborne illness.

3 methods of defrosting a frozen turkey

There are several ways of defrosting a turkey. But there are only three ways to thaw a frozen turkey safely. These are:

  1. Slow thawing in a refrigerator
  2. Fast thawing in a microwave
  3. Medium thawing in cold water

Thawing a frozen turkey in the refrigerator is the longest but easiest and safest of the 3 methods. This method keeps the turkey cold while it defrosts, preventing the growth of bacteria that could cause food poisoning after a delicious holiday meal.

Thawing a frozen turkey in the microwave or cold water is technically safe, but the latter is quite a hassle. Whichever method you choose, do not compromise on safety. You need to thaw the meat completely to roast a delicious turkey.

How to thaw a turkey in a refrigerator [in 3 steps]

It takes approximately 24 hours to thaw 4 to 5 pounds of turkey in the fridge. So if you have a bird that weighs around 12 pounds, you need to keep it in the refrigerator for three days.

If the turkey weighs between 12 to 16 pounds, prepare for the thawing process about 3 to 5 before the holiday.

To thoroughly defrost the turkey, ensure that the fridge’s temperature is set at 40 F or colder. You will also need:

  1. A roasting pan with a rack. Alternatively, you can use a large pan.
  2. A large zip-top or plastic bag
  3. A large bucket or pot for a quick thaw


Place the turkey on a roasting pan with a rack with the breast side up. It would be best to defrost the turkey in its original wrapping, as this will help catch any juices that may leak from the turkey. Placing the turkey on a pan with a rack elevates the turkey and ensures that air circulates the meat on all sides.

Step 2

Put the turkey in the refrigerator and make sure that nothing is leaning or touching the turkey. As the turkey thaws, it may produce juices that could contaminate other foodstuffs. So avoid placing anything else in the pan.

Step 3

Allow the turkey to thaw within the recommended period depending on its size. Refrigerator thawing times should be as follows:

  1. 4-12 lbs 1 to 3 days
  2. 12-16 lbs 3-4 days
  3. 16-20 lbs 4-5 days
  4. 20-24 lbs 5-6 days

You can also let the turkey stay for one or two extra days in the fridge as a buffer to make sure that it has completely defrosted.

Please do not keep the turkey in the fridge for longer than two days after defrosting because bacterial growth on its surface multiplies rapidly under average fridge temperature.

Tips for refrigerator turkey thawing

  1. If you want to brine your turkey either in a dry brine or a brine solution, start the process while it’s partially frozen.
  2. Allow turkeys injected with water, spices, or salt to thaw for an extra day because they take longer to defrost than natural turkeys.

How to safely thaw a frozen turkey in cold water [in 4 steps]

If you do not have enough time to defrost your turkey in the fridge, you can thaw it in cold water. Thaw time using the cold water defrosting method is 30 min per pound of turkey in chilled water, which you should refresh every 30 minutes.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends thawing 4 to 12 pounds of turkey for 2 to 6 hours when using this method. If the bird weighs between 12 and 16 pounds, you need to keep it in cold water for 6 to 8 hours and change the water every 30 minutes.

A 20-24 pound turkey takes the longest time to thaw due to its mass. If you decide to thaw a giant turkey using this method, consider the hassle of changing the water after every 30 minutes for 10 to 12 hours. The chart below will help you master the period needed to defrost every pound of turkeys in cold water:

  1. 4- to 12-pound turkey — 2 to 6 hours
  2. 12- to 16-pound turkey — 6 to 8 hours
  3. 16- to 20-pound turkey — 8 to 10 hours
  4. 20- to 24-pound turkey — 10 to 12 hours

Step 1

Place the frozen turkey in a large airtight plastic bag in its original wrapping. Squeeze the extra air out and seal the bag.

Step 2

Place the sealed bag in a large bucket or sink. Fill the bucket with cold water and ensure that the turkey is fully submerged. If it is not submerged, cover the bucket with a lid or press it down with a heavy object such as a saucepan.

Step 3

Change the water after every thirty minutes to keep the turkey within the safe temperature zone.

Step 4

Cook the turkey as soon as you defrost it.

Drawbacks of thawing turkey using cold water

  1. Although it’s technically safe to thaw your turkeys in cold water, it is a cumbersome method that could lead to severe food poisoning if the process is not correctly undertaken.
  2. You need to change the water every 30 minutes and keep it at 40 F. So if you have a big turkey, you might spend several hours monitoring the temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
  3. If you slack off and thaw your turkey at room temperature, you risk the growth of bacteria on the meat, which could lead to severe foodborne diseases.
  4. You have to add ice to the tap water before submerging the turkey to lower the water’s temperature to 40 F.

How to thaw turkey in a microwave [in 4 steps]

Using a microwave to thaw a turkey quickly could save you time if you are running late. This method is handy if you wake up on Thanksgiving day and find that your turkey has not entirely defrosted.

Ideal, you should thaw a pound of turkey in 6 minutes. However, you should read the user manual to get specific instructions for thawing a turkey because the power and time settings vary from model to model.

Step 1

Remove the turkey from its wrapping and any tags or metallic labels on it.

Step 2

Place the turkey with the breast side up in the microwave’s safe pan. The pan will catch any drips from the turkey.

Step 3

Thaw the turkey for the recommended period and then cook it immediately after it thaws completely.

Step 4

Clean the inside of the microwave after thawing the turkey to prevent cross-contamination.

The drawback of thawing a frozen turkey in a microwave is that it may not fit in the microwave if you have a large turkey.

How to defrost a turkey outside

Suppose your refrigerator is full, and you are afraid that the holiday will catch up with you before your turkey thaws completely. In that case, you can decide to defrost it outside the house.

Defrost the turkey outside through these simple steps;

  1. Put the turkey in a large sealable plastic container.
  2. Place the turkey with the breast side up and seal the box.
  3. Place the container in a garden shed, a garage, or a car’s boot and let it thaw for about two days.

This method can only work during cold seasons when the outdoor temperature won’t exceed 10 degrees Celsius.

Why is it dangerous to thaw a turkey at room temperature

It would be best if you never thawed a frozen turkey on the dining room table or kitchen counter. Room temperature falls within the danger zone- 40 to 140 F. This temperature promotes rapid and active bacterial growth, especially in meat and poultry products.

When thawing turkey at room temperature, it warms from the outside to the inside. At room temperature, bacteria multiply rapidly to dangerous levels as the turkey thaws. Cooking the turkey may not kill all the bacteria. Hence eating it puts you at risk of severe foodborne diseases.

3 tips on how to know when your turkey is thawed

  1. Check whether the breast meat feels springy and pliable
  2. Check whether the legs and wings move loosely in their sockets
  3. Check the inside of the turkey. If it is free of ice crystals, then you are good to go!

No time to thaw?

You might find yourself in a situation in which you have no time to thaw your frozen turkey. However bad the problem is, you should never thaw your turkey in warm or hot water or try to thaw it by blowing hot air over it with a blow dryer on the counter.

These shortcuts put the turkey in the danger zone. You risk food poisoning if you consume the turkey after leaving it at room temperature for over two hours.

However, you don’t need to serve something else for Thanksgiving because your turkey is still frozen. You can safely cook a frozen or partially frozen turkey by roasting it at 325 degrees F. If the turkey is frozen, you need to increase the cooking time by 50 % or 25% if it’s partially frozen.

Defrosting the turkey in the oven works because the high temperature in the oven keeps the turkey out of the danger zone as it cooks it.

Remove the giblets from the turkey when it thaws, and then season it with spices and salt while it is halfway cooked. The turkey will be ready to serve when it is registered at least 165 degrees F on all sides.

Tips on how to speed up thawing in a pinch

Sometimes you might defrost a turkey within the stipulated period. However, on checking, you find that the turkey is still partially frozen. If this happens, don’t panic. You can speed things up by combining the refrigerator and the cold water thawing methods. To do this;

Take the partially defrosted turkey out of the fridge and thaw it in the sink or a bucket using the cold water method until it defrosts.

Once you are through, clean the sink and any splatters around it to prevent the raw meat juices from contaminating other surfaces and objects.

Bottom line

How long it takes to defrost a turkey primarily depends on its size and the defrosting method. The larger the turkey, the longer it takes to defrost. If you want to have a large meal for Thanksgiving, you will need to purchase the frozen turkey several days before the holiday. This is particularly important, especially if you plan on defrosting the turkey in a refrigerator.

You can safely thaw a frozen turkey using cold water within fewer hours than in the refrigerator. However, although this method is faster, it is more energy and time-consuming.

Thawing a turkey in a microwave or roasting it while it’s still frozen is the best option if you have little or no time to thaw it.

You may also ask

How long does it take to defrost a 12-pound turkey?

The answer is: It depends.
The time it takes to defrost a turkey depends on the size of the turkey and how cold it was when it went in the freezer. The rule of thumb is that for every 5 pounds of meat, plan on 24 hours to defrost in the refrigerator. That’s just an average, though.
For example, if you have a 12-pound turkey that was frozen solid, that means it will need 5 days to thaw out in the fridge (24 hours x 4 pounds = 96 hours). If it’s only partially frozen and weighs 8 pounds, then defrosting will take 2 days (24 hours x 3 pounds = 72 hours).

How long does it take to defrost an 8-pound turkey breast in the refrigerator?

Defrosting an 8-pound turkey breast takes 5 to 7 hours in the refrigerator. To defrost it faster, place the turkey breast in a large bowl of cold water and change the water every 30 minutes until it is defrosted.
Thawing meat in the microwave can cause uneven cooking and lead to food poisoning. The safest method for thawing meat is to leave it in its original packaging and place it on a tray in the refrigerator.

how long to defrost a 20 lb turkey in the fridge?

A 20-pound turkey will take about 10 to 12 hours to completely defrost in the refrigerator. The ideal temperature for defrosting turkeys is 36°F to 40°F. This can be achieved by putting the turkey in a large bowl or sink full of cold water, and changing the water every 30 minutes until it is completely defrosted.
Once your turkey is done thawing, remove it from the water and pat dry with paper towels. Then place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Next, you want to start preheating your oven to 350°F (177°C) while you prepare your stuffing and other sides. If you are planning on cooking your turkey with the skin on, make sure that you drizzle some melted butter over the breast meat and place it in the oven uncovered for 30 minutes before covering it with foil and cooking for approximately 1 hour per pound (1 hour 15 minutes per kg)