How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey Safely

Updated: Feb. 14, 2024

How long does it take for a turkey to thaw? Here's how you can thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, in the sink and even in the microwave.

Every year, one thing sneaks up on me no matter how prepared I am for my holiday dinner: thawing that Thanksgiving turkey. I always forget how long it takes for the turkey to thaw, and there’s nothing worse than waking up Thanksgiving morning and discovering that your turkey is still frozen!

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has some pretty specific guidelines on how to safely thaw turkey. Follow along to learn them all for the best Thanksgiving yet.

How to Thaw Turkey

How Long to Thaw Turkey

Figuring out how long you should thaw turkey can be a challenge. This chart covers how long you should defrost based on the size of your bird and the method you use.

Turkey Weight Refrigerator Cold Water Microwave
4 lbs 1 day 2 hours 24 minutes
8 lbs 2 days 4 hours 48 minutes
12 lbs 3 days 6 hours 1 hour 12 minutes
16 lbs 4 days 8 hours 1 hour 36 minutes
20 lbs 5 days 10 hours 2 hours
24 lbs 6 days 12 hours 2 hours 24 minutes

Download Chart

No matter which method you choose, remember to thaw your turkey well in advance, so it cooks evenly. This is especially important for deep-fried turkeys!

How to Thaw Turkey in the Refrigerator

Open refrigerator with frozen turkey on shelfJeff Oshiro/Getty Images

This is your best option. While it does take up a large amount of space in your fridge, it’s also the ideal way to keep your turkey at safe temperatures during the entire thawing process. In fact, it’s so safe, the USDA says you can re-freeze your turkey after defrosting it this way.

Place your turkey (in its original packaging) in the refrigerator on a large platter to catch any drippings. If you don’t have a platter large enough, you can use a clean, unscented trash bag—just make sure it doesn’t have any holes in it.

How long to thaw turkey in the refrigerator: Defrost the turkey for approximately 24 hours for every four pounds. So, a 16-pound bird would take about four days.

When you should cook the turkey: Since this method safely thaws poultry, you can wait one to two days before cooking your turkey. Before you pop it in the oven, learn how to season turkey the right way, and the different things you can put in your turkey that aren’t stuffing.

How to Thaw Turkey in Cold Water

A frozen organic turkey thawing in a kitchen sink in tub of waterRobin Gentry/Getty Images

The cold water method is a bit quicker if you’re short on time. It takes as little as 30 minutes per pound. That means a 20-pound turkey will be ready to cook in ten hours instead of five days! In order to keep the turkey at a safe temperature, you’ll have to change out the water every 30 minutes.

Place the turkey (in its original packaging) in a leak-proof plastic bag. Submerge the wrapped turkey under cold water and change the water every 30 minutes for however long your turkey needs.

How long to thaw turkey in cold water: Defrost the turkey 30 minutes per pound. A 16-pound bird will take eight hours to thaw.

When you should cook the turkey: Cook the turkey immediately after thawing. Be sure to avoid these common turkey mistakes too.

How to Thaw Turkey in the Microwave

We’d really only recommend this method in extreme emergencies. That is, of course, assuming you can fit a turkey in your microwave! Ideally, you should follow your microwave’s instruction manual for the correct power level and timing.

Be sure to unwrap the turkey from its original packaging before placing it in the microwave. The turkey should be able to fit on a plate or a dish with a small lip (to catch turkey juices) that allows it to rotate without getting caught against the walls. If it can’t rotate properly because the bird is too large, the microwave might not be a safe option.

How long to thaw turkey in the microwave: The USDA recommends microwaving for about six minutes per pound. A 12-pound turkey would take about an hour and 12 minutes to thaw.

When you should cook the turkey: This method may start to cook portions of the turkey as it thaws. Because of that, it’s extremely important to cook it immediately after thawing.

Turkey Thawing FAQ

Can you thaw turkey on the countertop?

If you’re wondering why there isn’t a countertop method, that’s because it’s never safe to thaw a turkey at room temperature. These temperatures can cause bacteria to grow on poultry. No one wants to spend Black Friday with a foodborne illness, so just don’t do it.

How can you tell when the turkey is thawed?

The easiest way to check if your turkey is done thawing is to reach inside the bird and feel to see if there’s any ice inside. You can also poke it with a fork to see if it’s still hard and icy. If you can poke with ease, it’s time to cook the turkey.

After you thaw the turkey, make sure you know how long to cook a turkey and how to carve a turkey.

How to Cook a Frozen Turkey

If you ran out of time to thaw, even in the microwave, don’t fret—you can cook a frozen turkey. Frying and grilling aren’t an option when the turkey is fully frozen, so you’ll have to roast it in the oven. First, you’ll thaw the bird in the oven for two hours, and then you can go about seasoning and cooking as normal. Follow these guidelines for proper cook times for a frozen turkey, plus other tips.