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Consumer Information From USDA
Updated 2003 (Food Safety Publications)

Turkey Basics: Safe Defrosting

"The Big Thaw"

Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, if the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40 ºF, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again unless proper thawing methods are used.

A package of frozen meat or poultry thawing on the counter longer than 2 hours is not safe. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the "danger zone," between 40 and 140 ºF -- a temperature range where harmful bacteria multiply rapidly.

There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

Thawing Frozen Turkeys

Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer until ready to use. Frozen turkeys should not be thawed on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement or on the kitchen counter.

Refrigerator Thawing

When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, there are several variables to take into account:

  • Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F.

Refrigerator Thawing Times

(Whole turkey)

  • 8 to 12 pounds..........1 to 2 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds..........2 to 3 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds..........3 to 4 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds..........4 to 5 days

Foods defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, but there may be some loss of quality.

Microwave Thawing

Follow the manufacturer's instructions when thawing a turkey in the microwave oven. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwave thawing.

Cold Water Thawing

Allow about 30 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in cold water. Be sure the turkey is in leak-proof packaging. Tissues can absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product. Submerge the turkey in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times

  • 8 to 12 pounds...........4 to 6 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds...........6 to 8 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds.........8 to 10 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds.......10 to 12 hours

Turkeys thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately because conditions were not temperature controlled.

For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education and Communications Staff
Meat and Poultry Hotline:

  • 1-800-535-4555 (Tollfree Nationwide)
  • (202) 720-3333 (Washington, DC area)
  • 1-800-256-7072 (TDD/TTY)

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline:
1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854)
1-800-256-7072 (TTY)

USDA Food Safety Publications

Turkey Roasting Holiday Dinner Safety Index
Thanksgiving Recipes Index
Christmas Recipes Index

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