How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Turkey?

Don't freeze out your holiday bird.

October 31, 2019

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

By Leah Brickley for Food Network Kitchen

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

So, you figured out how big a bird will feed your guests (plus leftovers): the calculation is about 1 1/2 pounds per person (not counting your vegetarians and vegans).

If you’ve decided to buy a frozen bird, you’ll need some advance(ish) planning. 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 on 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).

Then, you mapped out your turkey game: like traditional wet vs. dry brining and/or a flavor-packed compound butter (pictured above) or spice rub. And don’t forget to whisk up some gravy.

Now it’s time to think about thawing:

Fridge-Thawing Your Bird

You're ready to work thawing into your Thanksgiving timeline — excellent. Make some room in the bottom of your fridge and have a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan nearby. Here’s the calculation: plan on 24 hours of fridge thawing for every 5 pounds of frozen turkey (for example: budget 4 full days of thawing in the fridge for a 20-pound turkey). Keep the turkey wrapped, and occasionally check to see if the baking sheet or roasting pan needs to be drained. If you plan on brining your turkey, then 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!) and thoroughly dry the bird, either with paper towels or let it air-dry — uncovered and refrigerated overnight (creating an extra added day on the timeline).

Sink-Thawing Your Bird

Ok, so you’ve run out of time to gently thaw your bird in the fridge? That's totally fine — there's always Plan B. Clean out your kitchen sink and plop 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 and a couple heavy canned goods. Then drain all the water and refill with more cold water every 30 minutes. Plan on 2 to 3 hours for every 5 pounds of frozen turkey. For that same 20-pound turkey above it should take 8 to 12 hours. Be sure to dry it well after, and don’t stress if there isn’t time to brine or air-dry. You can still upgrade 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.

Last-Minute Options

This is less than ideal, but many people don’t realize their bird is frozen until Thanksgiving.

Is it Thanksgiving Day? Do you have a totally frozen bird? Take a deep breath and persevere. If you’re planning to roast your bird, you can indeed roast it completely frozen. However, if you plan to deep fry your bird, you must thaw it: DO NOT DEEP FRY A FROZEN TURKEY. But, back to the roasting. If your bird is frozen, come to terms with the fact that this is not going to be your best turkey, but it will be cooked through and safe to eat. Let go of plans to brine and save that spice rub. Also, cook any stuffing on the side.

To cook your frozen bird, plan to cook it at a lower heat for longer. Preheat the oven to 325°F: You want a lower temperature so the turkey doesn't burn on the outside before it’s cooked through on the inside.

  • Plan on 50% more cooking time (which means around 8 hours). Here’s our calculation: If a thawed bird requires 15 to 20 minutes per pound at 325°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.
  • 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.
  • Roast it, undisturbed, for 2 1/2 to 3 hours: At this point it should be thawed enough that you'll be able wrangle out the giblet bag (don’t leave that in once it’s thawed enough to be retrieved), then brush the outside with melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • After about 7 hours, start to check the temperature all over the turkey. You're looking for 170 to 175°F in the deepest part of the thigh and 165°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°F.
  • Let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving.

Scenario 2 in a frozen-turkey emergency: Don’t want to fuss with a frozen-solid turkey? It’s time to get flexible: if your local grocery store is open then grab a few rotisserie chickens for the main course. Check to see if there are fresh turkey breasts to roast instead. Or grab some ground turkey and make meatloaf. You can even go a totally different direction (and maybe start an accidental new tradition) and make a big batch of turkey ragout and serve over your favorite pasta. Or just put on your favorite playlist and put extra love into your sides.

Thawing Recap:

For the planners among us, 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 until every part is definitely at 165°F. Or, think outside of the box and save your turkey for the next holiday. And try not to sweat it, yes, Thanksgiving is about the food but it's also about friends and family and they'll forgive you!

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