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Help, It’s Thanksgiving Morning and My Bird Is Still Frozen! Here’s How to Quickly Thaw a Turkey and Save the Day

It’s Thanksgiving morning. You’ve prepped dessert and a few sides already, but your bird is still frozen solid. First, relax: There’s no need to run around like a chicken turkey with its head cut off. The USDA recommends allotting a full 24 hours of thawing in the fridge per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey, but sometimes you get so wrapped up in holiday prep that you forget to start on time. We empathize, and that’s why we’ve found a few foolproof ways to quickly thaw a turkey and save the feast—even the morning of.

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But First, Here’s How Not to Thaw a Turkey

We know it’s tempting, but whatever you do, please don’t plop the bird on the counter and let it thaw at room temperature. Per the USDA, “A package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature.” And definitely ignore Uncle Ron’s advice about leaving it in the basement to defrost—you want a controlled temperature, not food poisoning.

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How to Thaw a Turkey Overnight: Use the Fridge

Ideally, you should thaw a frozen bird in the fridge with these guidelines from the USDA in mind. Allow approximately 24 hours of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds of poultry. Keep the bird in its original packaging and place it on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak. A fully thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. Here are some approximate thawing times based on weight: 

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days

How to Thaw a Turkey in a Few Hours: Use the Cold-Water Method

Let’s say you woke up at 7 a.m. and realized that you forgot to transfer the bird from the freezer to the fridge last night. Fortunately, your guests aren’t coming over until later this afternoon.

Here’s the plan:

  1. Submerge your bird breast side down in cold water. A large pot or the sink should do the trick. Make sure the turkey is totally submerged (use a baking dish to weigh it down if you have to).
  2. Change the water every 30 minutes. This is key for food safety, so be sure to set an alarm for yourself so you don’t forget.

Note: It should take approximately 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw. So, for a ten-pound turkey, you're looking at about 5 hours of thawing time.

How to Thaw a Turkey When Your Guests Have Already Arrived: Cook It Frozen

Yup, you actually can safely cook a fully frozen turkey, says the USDA. But there’s a catch: Cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer. So, while a 12-pound, fully thawed turkey would normally take about 3 hours to cook in a 325°F oven, it will take 4½ hours or more to cook if it’s frozen.

Out of Time?

Ply your guests with drinks and appetizers while you give this recipe for maple roasted turkey legs a go. And if that doesn't work, team your delicious sides with a pizza delivery (because pepperoni fixes everything).

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