How to Defrost a Turkey the *Right* Way

Bird still frozen on Thanksgiving Day? No problemo. Here's how to thaw it fast.

November 20, 2023
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Frozen turkey? No problem. Ideally you'd let this happen gradually, a few days before, in a 40°F refrigerator. The golden rule is about 24 hours of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds. But sometimes that doesn't happen! And sometimes it's Thanksgiving morning and your bird is still hard as a rock. Read on to find out the absolute best way to defrost a turkey—fast.

Easily, one of the most asked Hotline questions in Food52 history is: How do I defrost my turkey?

From stuffings and casseroles to pie crusts and dinner rolls, the freezer is a prepared cook’s best friend during Thanksgiving. But as the big day approaches, there’s one thing you’ll need to take out of the ice box: the turkey. And, depending on how big it is, you should probably do it days before Thanksgiving.

The easiest and safest way to defrost your turkey is in the refrigerator (kept at 40°F). Our golden rule: 1 day of thawing in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds.

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Top Comment:
“A "turkey" that will fit in an InstaPot is called a chicken. ;)”
— D

(So if you have a 15-pound bird, then you’ll need to start defrosting nearly four days in advance to be on the safe side.)

Make sure to place the wrapped turkey breast-side up on a tray near the back of the refrigerator, where it will remain consistently cold. You might also want to keep it on a bottom shelf to prevent contamination from leakage. Once your bird has thawed, cook it within the next 4 days.

How to Thaw a Turkey Fast

If you don’t have room for turkey in the refrigerator (or only have Wednesday to prep), then the second way to defrost the bird is in cold water breast-side down, changing the water every 30 minutes. In this method, budget 30 minutes of thawing per pound.

(So, plan 7 hours for the same 15-pound turkey as above, then cook immediately.)

In cold water–thawing, it’s very important that the entire turkey remains submerged in 40°F water. Chances are that your tap water won’t be cold enough, so add some ice cubes. If you don’t have a large enough container, try using your sink or ice chest. Another way to keep the turkey covered is to hold it underwater with a heavy plate. Make sure to stir the water occasionally to break up the cold envelope surrounding the bird.

Once thawed, pat dry and roast away!

How to Make the Best Thanksgiving Turkey

This article was updated in 2023.

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How do you defrost your turkey? Let us know in the comments below.
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Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.


Anita O. November 15, 2022
I have seen a lot of advice lately which does not recommend washing poultry before cooking to reduce the chances of contaminating kitchen surface areas. I am unsure about doing this. Also, how does the salt adhere to a frozen turkey. I am going to cook 14 and 15 lb. Turkeys. Dry brining frozen would make life easier.
Tracey M. November 25, 2019
This year, I'm doing a combo--I bought my turkey late this year. It's just under 18 pounds, so it'll have 3 1/2 days in the fridge, and on Wednesday afternoon/evening, I'll do the water bath just to be sure it's thawed.
AntoniaJames November 11, 2019
I've read that you can cook a turkey in an Instant Pot from frozen, no thawing necessary - and then crisp up the skin in the oven - but I have yet to try it. Something perhaps to put on your editorial dance card for 2020? ;o)
D November 17, 2019
A "turkey" that will fit in an InstaPot is called a chicken. ;)