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How to defrost a turkey for Thanksgiving (and how not to)

Spoiler alert: You should have already started by now.

It's a well-dressed and cooked turkey on a plate with some chopped apples. Yum.
mphillips007/E+/Getty Images

It's not hard to thaw a turkey; you just need time. If you bagged your bird early and froze it, good on you. You probably got the exact bird you wanted, but now comes the next defrosting -- and thawing your turkey properly can be just as important to the overall success of the famous Thanksgiving entree as how you cook it.  

The good news is the best way to thaw out a turkey is also the easiest, but it takes the longest so if you haven't started then hop to it! Here are two ways you can safely defrost a turkey, according to the US Department of Agriculture. And make sure you know your turkey's weight, too. I know it's impolite to ask, but this will determine how long your turkey takes to thaw.

Read moreHow to cook Thanksgiving turkey outside without an oven

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. 

Read more: How and why (or not) to brine a turkey

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

I thawed this turkey in cold water.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A faster way to defrost a turkey: Using cold water

This method 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

Low on time? Resist the microwave's siren calls

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 thaw. I'd be extremely wary of relying on a microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat, though. In fact, I'd suggest avoiding it 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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