How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Turkey?

Don't freeze out your holiday bird.

Updated on November 16, 2023

By Leah Brickley for Food Network Kitchen

Leah is a senior culinary editor at Food Network.

Thanksgiving has a way of revealing the type of planner each of us is, especially when it comes to turkey. Some of us are ready to brine a week in advance, and others realize our bird is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning. No matter when you get to work on that frozen bird, we’re here to help. We have advice for planners, non-planners and those facing a day-of, frozen-bird panic.

Firstly, make sure you figure out how much turkey you need to feed your guests (with leftovers). The general calculation is about 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person enjoying the bird.

If you’ve decided to buy a frozen turkey, you probably saw some options: pre-brined (no home brining necessary), kosher (butchered according to Jewish law and pre-seasoned), natural (no artificial flavorings or preservatives, though there may be added water, salt and natural flavors), organic (fed a 100% organic diet), free-range (turkeys can hunt-and-peck outside for a short or long period of time) and heritage (a descendant of an early American breed like the Red Bourbon or Standard Bronze).

No matter which type of bird you're cooking, determine how you plan to prepare it. For example, you might opt for traditional wet brining vs. dry brining, and/or a flavor-packed compound butter (pictured above) or spice rub. And don’t forget to whisk up some gravy.

Once you have your approach set, it's time to think about how to thaw the frozen turkey.

Preparing traditional turkey

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How long does it take to defrost a turkey

Photo by: Boris SV/Getty Images

Boris SV/Getty Images

How to Defrost a Turkey In the Refrigerator

To defrost a turkey in the refrigerator, plan on 24 hours of fridge time for every 5 pounds of turkey.

For instance, if you have a 20-pound turkey, make sure you have enough time for 4 full days of thawing in the fridge. Store it on the bottom of your fridge, fully wrapped, in a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan. Occasionally, check to see if the baking sheet or roasting pan needs to be drained.

If you plan to brine your turkey, make sure you have enough thawing time to still work in brining before Thanksgiving Day. Don't forget to remove the turkey neck and gizzards — ideally to use in gravy! You'll also need to thoroughly dry the bird, either with paper towels or by air-drying uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. (Note that if you opt for air drying in the fridge, that add another day to your pre-Thanksgiving turkey timeline).

How to Thaw a Turkey In the Sink

If you're thawing a turkey in the sink, plan on 2 to 3 hours for every 5 pounds of frozen turkey. In other words, for that same 20-pound turkey, you'll need 8 to 12 hours in the sink.

This is a great way to speed up thawing a turkey when you don't have time for several days in the fridge. First, clean your kitchen sink and place your frozen and wrapped turkey in the largest pot you have. Fill it with enough cold water to fully submerge the turkey (you may need to weigh it down with a plate). Every 30 minutes, drain the pot and refill with more cold water. After it's thawed, dry the bird well with paper towels.

Don’t stress if there isn’t time to brine or air-dry. You can still season your turkey with spices or the classic trio of butter, salt and pepper. Our Butter-Blanketed Turkey yields a gorgeously crisp, golden exterior, without any advance prep or brining.

Fresh Raw Turkey Ready to be Prepared for Holidays

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How long does it take to defrost a turkey?

Photo by: GMVozd/Getty Images

GMVozd/Getty Images

Last-Minute Turkey Thawing Options

Is it Thanksgiving Day? Did you suddenly realize the turkey you bought is frozen through? Take a deep breath and persevere. If you’re planning to roast your bird, you can indeed roast it from frozen. If you plan to deep fry your bird, you must thaw it. DO NOT DEEP FRY A FROZEN TURKEY.

To roast a bird from frozen, let go of any plans to brine and save that spice rub for another day. It might not be your best turkey, but it will still be cooked through and safe to eat. Be sure to cook your stuffing on the side, not within the bird.

How to Roast a Frozen Turkey

While it's not ideal, plenty of people have woken up on Thanksgiving morning and realized they have a frozen bird. To roast it from frozen, you'll cook it at a lower temperature and for a longer time than traditional turkey recipes.

Step one: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. You want a lower temperature so the turkey doesn't burn on the outside before it’s cooked through on the inside.

Step two: Plan on 50% more cooking time (around 8 hours). Here’s our calculation: If a thawed bird requires 15 to 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees F then a 20-pound thawed turkey would take about 5 to 6 1/2 hours, plus 50%, which means 2 1/2 to 3 hours more. That's 7 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours to cook a completely frozen 20-pound turkey.

Step three: Unwrap your turkey and place it on a rack in a roasting pan. Your turkey will hover safely above all that thawing/cooking liquid, though you may need to syphon some off.

Step four: Roast it, undisturbed, for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At this point it should be thawed enough that you'll be able to remove the giblet bag — don’t leave the giblets inside the bird for the entire time it thaws. Brush the outside of the turkey with melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Step five: After about 7 hours, check the temperature of the turkey. You're looking for 170 to 175 degrees F in the deepest part of the thigh and 165 degrees F everywhere else. Your turkey will cook from the outside in and the last place to finish will be the deepest part of the breast. Frozen means raw, so keep cooking until 165 degrees F.

Step six: Rest. Let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving.

Alternatively, if your turkey is frozen and you don't want to risk roasting it, it’s time to be flexible and get creative. If your local grocery store is open, grab a few rotisserie chickens for the main course. Check to see if there are fresh turkey breasts to roast instead. Use ground turkey to make meatloaf, or go in a totally different direction and make a big batch of turkey ragout to serve over your favorite pasta. Or, just put on your favorite playlist and put extra love into your sides. Who knows, you might end up creating a whole new Thanksgiving tradition.

How to Defrost a Turkey: Quick Tips

Need a quick recap? We've got you covered.

If you're planning in advance, calculate 24 hours of fridge time for every frozen 5 pounds of turkey. Keep wrapped and thaw on a rimmed baking sheet or in a roasting pan. Be sure to add extra time/days if you plan on brining and/or air-drying your bird.

Non-planners, submerge your turkey in a large pot of cold water and change out the water every 30 minutes. It will take 2 to 3 hours for every 5 pounds of frozen turkey.

Emergencies: Roast your frozen turkey at a lower temperature until every part of the bird is 165 degrees F. Or, think outside of the box and save your turkey for the next holiday.

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