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’Tis the season for cooking turkey! Whether you observe holiday festivities with a scrumptious bird or are simply feeling inspired to prepare one for a casual, cozy night at home, you’re probably looking for all the turkey-making directions you can get. Even experienced home chefs can benefit from a refresher. Here’s the thing about preparing a turkey dinner, though: Before you can really get started with making the turkey—not to mention carving it, which is its own undertaking—you’ll need to properly thaw (a.k.a. defrost) it. If you don’t take the necessary steps to defrost a turkey, you could end up with one cold, inedible bird. Worse still, you could find yourself sick! And with a delicious meal to enjoy, we can’t let that happen. Keep scrolling to learn more about how to thaw a turkey. 

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The first step to this delicious holiday turkey? Thawing your bird.

Safety Concerns to Consider

Why is it so important to know how to defrost a turkey? Obviously, you can’t properly cook a turkey if it’s still frozen inside. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that—and it has to do with your health, so listen up. 

If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you probably already know that there are some specific safety considerations you must keep in mind when dealing with poultry, including chicken and turkey. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eating poultry before it has reached a safe temperature can cause food poisoning. Chicken, in particular, tends to carry a lot of bacteria that needs to be cooked out. 

The CDC also notes that “handling poultry (chickens and turkey) incorrectly and undercooking it are the most common problems that lead to foodborne disease outbreaks.” When it comes to preparing your holiday (or everyday) turkey, defrosting is a crucial step of the process. It’s important to be mindful of the steps you’re taking to thaw your bird to ensure that you and your loved ones don’t end up victims of foodborne illness. 

Don’t panic, though! It’s not especially difficult to defrost a turkey safely. You just have to know what you’re doing. Read on! 

Master the Full Holiday Meal

Full American Holiday (Thanksgiving) Feast 

How to Thaw a Turkey

Here are the basics of thawing a turkey safely: 

Leave Yourself Plenty of Time

Many families will purchase their holiday turkeys well in advance of the big meal and store them in the freezer until it’s time to cook. This is a smart move, since turkeys are safe indefinitely as long as they’re frozen. 

Defrosting a turkey isn’t a quick process, though, especially if you’re handling a large bird. You’ll find more specifics about timing below, but as a rule, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of time to get this done. You don’t want to find yourself ready to prepare a feast with a still-frozen turkey. 

Don’t Leave it on the Counter! 

The CDC says that this is a very bad idea, since the turkey may begin to warm up too quickly. Instead of leaving your turkey to thaw at “room temperature” by sitting out in your kitchen… 

Defrost at a Safe Temperature in the Refrigerator

This is the USDA’s preferred, safest method for defrosting a turkey. Once your turkey is thawed, it’s safe to keep it in the fridge for another one to two days. In terms of thaw time, you’ll want to allow about 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey. Make sure it’s safely wrapped while it’s in the refrigerator.

Using the refrigerator for defrosting is a great method for all the planners out there. Or, if you need your turkey to thaw faster…

Thaw in Cold Water

Keep your turkey in its original wrapping and submerge it in a sink or container full of cold water. The cold water ensures that the thawing process doesn’t happen so fast that it becomes unsafe. As an extra precaution, the water should be changed every 30 minutes with fresh cold water. Plan for 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound of turkey.

Try the Microwave

If your microwave is large enough (and/or your turkey small enough), it can serve as another option for defrosting your bird. Generally speaking, six minutes per pound should do the trick in most microwaves, but if you have your microwave manual, it wouldn’t hurt to check it for extra guidance on your particular model. 

When thawing a turkey in the microwave, remove it from its original packaging and place it on a microwave-safe dish. Rotate the turkey a few times too. 

Eat Up! 

Now that we’ve talked turkey, it’s time for you to jump in and get cooking. Follow these steps to ensure that—no matter what method you choose—the final product is both safe and delicious for you, your friends, and your family. 

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