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Defrost Your Christmas Turkey the Right Way With These Easy Tips

Thawing your turkey properly and safely doesn't have to be hard.

It's a well-dressed and cooked turkey on a plate with some chopped apples. Yum.
If you bought your bird ahead of time, good on you. Here's how to safely defrost a turkey for Thanksgiving. 
mphillips007/E+/Getty Images

This story is part of 12 Days of Tips, helping you make the most of your tech, home and health during the holiday season.

Turkey is top of mind for home cooks at this time of year, especially if you're hosting for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. If you've already bought your holiday turkey, that's a good thing. But this means that it's likely tucked away in your freezer and that you'll need to thaw your turkey properly before the feast -- a few days before the feast, in fact. 

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Defrosting a turkey safely isn't tricky, but it requires some time (and patience) so it's best to make a plan and perhaps even set a reminder.

The good news is that the best way to thaw out a turkey happens to be the easiest, but it also takes the longest. There are really only two ways to safely defrost a turkey and avoid a rubbery bird. (And, no, one of them is not the microwave.) Here are the best ways to safely thaw your turkey -- one slow and one a little quicker -- ahead of Christmas this year. 

For more turkey tips, explore our guide on the best way to prepare your turkey and nine yummy turkey alternatives to try this year. Plus, you can check out the best meat delivery services

Can you defrost your turkey on the kitchen counter?

It is not safe, nor is it recommended to defrost a turkey or any poultry at room temperature. The key to safely thawing a turkey is not letting any part of the flesh rise about 40 degrees F for any extended period of time or foodborne bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. Because turkeys are typically so large and take so long to defrost, that rules out letting it thaw out on the kitchen counter. 

The best way to thaw a turkey: Use your refrigerator

This method is the most time-consuming option, but will net the best results: The USDA suggests 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, which means you'd need to set aside a few days or up to a week for a large bird. This method requires the least amount of effort. All you have to do is put your turkey in a container to catch drips and let it hang out in the fridge. 

To make sure your turkey (and any other meat) you're serving is safe to eat, get a meat thermometer. It's an affordable investment in both helping you figure out when your food is ready, and keeping your guests safe.

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Turkey thawing time snapshot

  • 4 to 8 pounds: 24 hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds: 36 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 6 days

This turkey was thawed using cold water.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The fastest (safe) way to defrost a turkey: Use cold water

This method for defrosting a turkey will net faster results than the fridge, but it requires a few more steps too. First, put the turkey in a leak-proof bag and put it in a cold tap water bath in the sink or a large receptacle (such as a cooler or clean recycling bin). The USDA recommends that you change the water every 30 minutes. I've found that it's easiest to defrost your turkey in a cooler that has a spigot: This lets you easily drain the water to make room for fresh water -- or drain it completely once the bird is defrosted. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw your turkey using this method.

It takes a little work to go from frozen turkey to a tasty main course.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Can you defrost a turkey in the microwave?

The USDA says that you can defrost your turkey in the microwave as long as you follow the product instructions and cook it immediately after thawing. Even if you can fit that big bird inside, I'd be extremely wary of relying on a microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat. In fact, I'd suggest avoiding the microwave at all costs. Even chickens are difficult to defrost well with a microwave and they're generally a fraction of the size.

If anything, use the thaw setting for just a few minutes to get it started and then employ a combination of the cold water bath and fridge methods above to defrost your turkey. Don't use the entire time that your microwave suggests for defrosting this amount of frozen meat, especially all in one go. It won't be pretty, I promise you.

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