It is almost the time of the year when turkeys are going to be on the menu all over the country. One great thing about the holiday season is that it is often easy to find really good deals on frozen turkeys. It is a great time of the year to stock up on this most magnificent of meal items and stuff your freezer for year-round turkey.
The difficult thing about frozen turkey is that you can't just pop it in the fridge for a couple hours and have it ready to cook. Thawing a turkey takes a long time and must be done in a specific way to prevent creating a haven for bacteria that can make you horribly sick.
Can You Smoke a Turkey if it's Frozen?
You can't cook, bake, grill, barbecue, or smoke a frozen turkey. It has to thaw out, first. If you try and cook a frozen turkey, the water in the meat will rapidly expand and become vapor, which will decimate the texture of the meat. Think mushy, soggy, turkey. It's gross, trust us, and don't try to smoke a frozen turkey.
How to Safely Thaw a Turkey
The only safe way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. This can take a very long time, as much as a week for a large bird that is frozen solid. It might be tempting to leave a completely frozen whole turkey on the counter until it thaws but this is a recipe for food poisoning. Similarly, you don't want to thaw a turkey by running hot water over it because the temperature will create the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.
Three Ways to Thaw a Turkey
We've found that there are only three ways that you can thaw a frozen turkey without endangering the lives of your friends and families. We'll go over the pros and cons of each of the three methods and explain what not to do. We'll make sure that when you defrost a turkey, you won't risk getting anyone sick and your turkey will have an excellent texture.
The Refrigerator Method for Thawing Turkey
The refrigerator method is the one recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture as the only way to prevent food-borne bacterial growth during the thawing process.
The USDA recommends that you place the frozen turkey on a rack in a roasting pan or other suitable dish that can collect any liquid that drains out of the turkey during the thawing process. Do not remove the turkey from its original packaging. The original packaging will help prevent juices from leaking and potentially cross-contaminating everything in your fridge.
How Long Does it Take to Thaw a Turkey in the Fridge
This is a slow process, so you'll want to plan well ahead to ensure your bird is thawed all the way on the day you plan to cook. A good rule of thumb is 24 hours for every five pounds of meat. That means a 20-pound turkey will require about four to five days. Keep in mind that the larger the bird, the slower the thaw.
The reason this is the best method for thawing a turkey is that the meat will not get warmer than 40 degrees, the lowest temperature at which harmful bacteria are likely to grow. Since the whole bird is going to require a long time to thaw, we usually recommend planning on having it done a full 24 hours before we are going to smoke or fry it.
Tip for the Refrigerator Thawing process
You can put the refrigerator process to good use by incorporating your marinade into the thawing process. What you'll want to do is wait until the turkey has about 10 to 24 hours remaining to fully defrost, then add your marinade. The oil, fat, and salt will help the thawing process while also adding flavor and tender juiciness to your turkey. Always make sure that your marinade is room temperature or colder when you add the turkey to the brine.
Always leave the turkey wrapped. If you have an unwrapped turkey, you should use plastic wrap or aluminum foil to wrap the meat. This prevents cross-contamination and helps to prevent the turkey from absorbing other smells in your refrigerator.
The Cold Water Method
This method works, but still takes time. When you are in a pinch and you need a turkey thawed out as quickly as possible, the cold water method can be useful.
Keep the frozen turkey in its original wrapper. Fill the sink with cold water and immerse the turkey in the sink. You can use a plate to help hold the turkey in the water to prevent warm spots that can lead to bacteria. Rotate the turkey every 30 minutes. The cold water allows the frozen meat to slowly thaw, preventing damage from ice crystals in the meat while hindering the growth of bacteria.
How Long Does it Take to Thaw a Turkey Using the Cold Water Method
You'll want to plan ahead for this process and make sure you will be around the house. It is faster than the refrigerator method but is much more hands-on.
It will take roughly 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thaw out this way. That means you'll need anywhere from eight to ten hours in the sink to thaw a turkey. You should change the water every 30 minutes when you flip the turkey to ensure the water stays cold and doesn't allow the meat to get too warm.
Tips for the Cold Water Method
You can combine the refrigerator method and the cold water method to speed up the process by partially thawing the turkey in the refrigerator. When you use cold water to finish the turkey, it won't take as long.
A fully defrosted turkey can be kept in the refrigerator for one or two days. Always keep the turkey wrapped when in the fridge to prevent cross-contamination.
The Microwave Method
This is the least desirable way to thaw a turkey and will require that you have a microwave large enough or a small enough turkey. We typically don't suggest attempting this method with a whole turkey. It tends to cause the surface of the meat to cook while the insides are still frozen. Instead, it's better to use the microwave thawing method for turkey breasts, legs, and other smaller cuts.
Unwrap the turkey from the original wrapping and place it in a microwave-safe bowl that will catch the drippings. Start thawing the turkey on the defrost setting in short bursts of 30-second intervals. Rotate and flip the turkey every one or two cycles to prevent it from burning.
For food safety, this is not a good method. While microwaves are good at killing bacteria, the likelihood that your turkey won't be at a safe temperature is very high. Be sure to safely cook turkey to a safe temperature, especially if using the microwave method. We also don't recommend using the microwave to thaw completely frozen turkey.
How NOT to Thaw a Turkey
There are some really terrible ideas for how to quickly thaw a turkey. We know how tempting it can be to take a frozen bird and do whatever we can think of to thaw it out. Your health isn't worth rushing the process and the worst thing you can do for the taste and texture of the final product.
One of the worst ideas we've ever heard is thawing the turkey in the oven at a low temperature. All you are really doing with this trick is creating the perfect environment for nasty bacteria.
Here is another bad idea: sticking the frozen turkey in an empty ice chest. I don't know why anyone thinks this is a better idea than leaving it on the counter, but it's actually worse. Putting the frozen bird in a cooler traps air and makes the development of bacteria happen even faster. A terrible idea that you should never do.
Uncovering the turkey in the refrigerator is also a bad idea. It won't speed up the thawing process at all and the raw turkey will attract dust and dirt while spreading bacteria-laden particles all over your other food.
There are No Quick Ways to Defrost a Turkey
It's true, there are no quick and easy methods to get the results you want. Your best bet is to be prepared ahead of time and move that turkey into the refrigerator well before you need to cook it. Of all the thawing methods, using the refrigerator is the only way that we really recommend thawing a turkey. Sure, it takes a while, but it also lets the meat thaw naturally and limits the damage to the texture. Other methods will all introduce a significant amount of risk, so circle your calendar on the day you want to cook a frozen turkey and get it out of the freezer several days ahead of time.
Once you get your turkey thawed, make sure you follow Scott's Maple Chipotle Turkey Recipe for an easy and great-tasting bird.