Safely Thawing the Holiday Turkey

By Christopher R. Raines

Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, and soon frozen turkeys will be in household freezers across America.  Properly thawing said turkey is an important step in keeping your food safe and so, here is some information about safely thawing a frozen turkey. There are three widely recognized methods to safely thaw meat:  (1) in cold water, (2) in the microwave, and (3) in the refrigerator.

Thawing in cold water can be quick — especially for smaller meat cuts (i.e. a few chicken breasts, beef steaks, or pork chops) — and requires that the water remains cold.  That big turkey, however, is different.  It’s much thicker than your average chop and thus, it will take much longer to thaw in water.  Problematically, the cold water will eventually warm up, which is why it’s recommended to exchange cold water every 30 minutes if thawing this way.  The microwave is quick, too, but a whole turkey will not fit in many microwaves (if you do have a gargantuan microwave capable of this, you should start cooking the turkey immediately after nuking it).  For these reasons, thawing in the refrigerator is the recommended method to thaw a whole turkey carcass.

Thaw time at refrigeration temperatures (below 40°F) will vary depending on the size of the turkey.  Here are some example size-time relationships for an approximate thaw time for a whole turkey:

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

When thawing in the refrigerator, there are a few other precautions to take: First, leave the turkey in its original packaging (presuming it’s packaged in some kind of vacuum-sealed plastic bag).  Second, be sure to place the turkey on a solid tray (a metal pan with a lip works — anything that keeps rogue turkey juice from possibly venturing elsewhere).  The potential for cross-contamination exists (i.e. Salmonella dripping on your veggies), so keep it on that tray.  Last, place the packaged turkey on the bottom shelf just to be sure it doesn’t drip on other foods.  In many refrigerators, the “crisper” for fruits and vegetables is beneath the bottom shelf, which makes placing a solid tray under the turkey even more important.

With this information, I’d be remiss to say that the refrigerator in many American households operates too warmly — sometimes exceeding 45°F.  Not good.  Be sure to check the temperature of your refrigerator and set it such that it maintains a maximum temperature of 40°F (and check it in the middle or near the bottom, where it’s likely to be warmer).

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