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Chill! Or, How to Safely Thaw a (Thanksgiving) Turkey

By Dr. Maria Rometo
Extension Agent II

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, along with all the holiday planning of meals and guest lists. But how do you safely thaw that frozen turkey you purchased a few weeks ago on sale at the grocery store? There are specific guidelines to follow, based on the weight of the bird. Here are some recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

First, never thaw a turkey on the kitchen counter or in hot water. Turkey, along with any perishable food, must be kept at a safe temperature while thawing to minimize the danger of foodborne illness. Once a thawing turkey becomes warmer than 40 degrees, bacteria that were present on the turkey before freezing begin to multiply very quickly.

Turkey_Dinner_By_Florida_Lake

A fall food spread including a turkey and several varieties of squash on a lakeside table. Food safety, outdoor dining. [CREDIT: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS]

So, how do you safely thaw a turkey? PLAN AHEAD! Planning will not only make it easier for you, but also will help avoid making your family and guests ill. There are three ways to thaw a turkey safely: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave oven. The methods are outlined below, so you can start planning now.

Refrigerator Thawing: A frozen turkey will require at least 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of weight.  So, if your bird weighs 16–20 pounds, it will require 4–5 days to thaw.  After the thawing is complete, the bird should stay safe in your refrigerator for an additional day or two before cooking.

Cold Water Thawing: This method is faster than thawing in the refrigerator, but requires more attention.  Keep the bird in its original packaging, and submerge it in cold tap water.  Make sure to change the water every 30 minutes, to keep it cold. This method takes about 30 minutes per pound to thaw.  Once thawed, cook the turkey immediately.

Microwave Thawing: After thawing the turkey in your microwave, cook immediately due to areas of unsafe temperatures during the thawing process.

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