The ideal way to thaw a frozen turkey is to plan ahead. A turkey needs one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds. So depending on its weight (and whether or not you plan to salt or brine it), you may need to start thawing the bird as much as a week before Thanksgiving.
But if it’s too late for this timetable, fret not.
It is possible to thaw a turkey at the last minute—even the day of—and still have a beautifully roasted bird on the table for the big feast. But we caution you: It’s a bit labor intensive.
But anything’s better than trying to cook a frozen turkey or scrambling to find something else to serve, right?
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If you are reading this article, time is of the essence, so I’ll keep it short. The following method is recommended by the USDA. You can use it on Thanksgiving (assuming you start very early in the day) or on the day before.
How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey Fast
Place the turkey in its original wrapper in a large bucket or cooler filled with cold water. Place something heavy on top of the bird to keep it submerged, and let it thaw for 30 minutes per pound. For example, a 12-pound bird will take 6 hours to thaw.
Here’s where the method takes some work and vigilance: You have to change the water every half hour.
Continually changing the water is critical to a quick thaw because if the water gets too cold from the turkey, the process slows down and your turkey won’t be thawed in time for dinner.
You also need to regularly check the temperature of the turkey. Press your probe firmly against the surface of the wrapping. If the temperature reaches 40 degrees, even if the bird is not fully thawed, you should start cooking it within the hour. That’s because 40 degrees is the start of the temperature danger zone, where pathogens can multiply and the meat becomes unsafe to eat.
To check if the turkey is fully thawed, wiggle its legs through the plastic; they should move easily. But do not put the thawed bird back in the refrigerator. Cook it immediately so the meat will move as quickly as possible through the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees.
Why Does Thawing in Cold Water Work?
Water conducts heat more efficiently than air. So submerging the wrapped bird in water helps to raise its temperature faster than simply leaving it to thaw in the refrigerator.
Cold, versus warm water is also essential to help ensure that the bird's temperature stays below 40 degrees.