How to Safely Defrost a Frozen Turkey or Other Holiday Meat
It takes longer than you'd think, so get that big bird or slab of beef out of the freezer ASAP.
David WatskySenior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now, he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or researching the best way to make bacon. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
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Defrosting a turkey or holiday roast the right way doesn't require skill, but it does take time -- probably more time than you'd guess if this is your first time If your turkey showed up more than a week before you plan to cook it, you likely (and correctly) froze it. That means it will need to be carefully thawed and to do it safely takes longer than you might think.
While there are viable shortcuts to defrosting a turkey, you may risk having a rubbery bird when cooked, or exposure to possible foodborne illness. The best way to thaw out a frozen turkey, chicken or large cut of meat is beautifully simple (don't even think about using the microwave). If you need that frozen roast thawed faster, there's one method that will safely defrost it in much less time.
Here are the best ways to safely thaw your turkey -- one slow and one quicker -- ahead of your holiday celebration this year. If you're serving something other than turkey, such as brisket, leg of lamb, pork shoulder or duck, and need to thaw out your entree, these same techniques work best for just about any cut of meat.
Can you defrost a large piece of meat on the kitchen counter?
No. It's not safe, nor is it recommended to defrost a turkey, poultry or another large cut of meat at room temperature. The key to safely thawing is not letting any part of the flesh rise about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for any extended period or foodborne bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. While you might be able to get away with room temperature defrosting of smaller cuts of meats such as steaks and pork loins, larger meats take so long to defrost that you can't safely defrost them this way.
The best way to thaw a holiday meat: 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 refrigeratorset 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 (covered) 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.
Here's a snapshot of how long it could take you to thaw a frozen turkey of varying weights. See? It's definitely wise to have a plan and set an alarm for the day your turkey needs to come out of the freezer.
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
The fastest (safe) way to defrost a large cut of meat: Use cold water
This method for defrosting a turkey is faster than in the fridge, but it requires a few more steps. 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 this way.
Can you defrost a meat in the microwave?
The USDA says that you can defrost a 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 brisket or bird inside, I'd be extremely wary of relying on a microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat. I'd suggest avoiding the microwave at all costs. Even whole chickens are difficult to defrost well in a microwave and they're typically half of the size of a turkey.
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.