Safe ways to thaw and cook a frozen turkey

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Frozen chicken whole bird

Q: “I’m buying a frozen turkey this week to serve for Thanksgiving this year. What’s the best way to thaw it?”

A: With the traditional holiday just days away, if you’ve purchased a frozen turkey, the time to think about how to defrost it is now. Depending on how large your frozen bird is, it could take up to six days to safely defrost it in a refrigerator.

It’s very important that you thaw and cook your turkey safely to help avoid developing foodborne illnesses. Thawing a frozen turkey correctly helps minimize the growth of bacteria, which can cause foodborne illnesses. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that might have been present before freezing can begin to grow again, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

There are three safe ways to thaw a frozen turkey: in the refrigerator, in a container of cold water, or in a microwave.

The USDA recommends thawing it in the refrigerator because doing so allows the turkey to thaw in a controlled environment out of the temperature “danger zone”—between 40- and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — where bacteria can multiply rapidly.

A turkey thawed in the refrigerator takes one day for each 4–5 pounds of weight. So, for example, if your turkey weighs 12 pounds, it can take three days to thaw.

But, once thawed, you should cook the turkey within two days to ensure safety, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“If you find yourself needing to thaw the turkey using a faster method, you can place it in a container or sink and submerge it in cold water,” she said. “It’s important that the turkey stays cold, so you need to ensure that the turkey is completely submerged in cold water by replacing the water with fresh, cold water every 30 minutes.

“Turkeys thawed using this method will need 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound.”

When defrosting in the refrigerator or in cold water, keep the turkey in its original wrapping, the USDA advises, and in the fridge, consider a secondary container to catch juices and condensation as the bird defrosts.

If you want to thaw your turkey in the microwave, you will need to take it out of its packaging and place it on a microwave-safe dish. Use the defrost function based on the turkey’s weight, the USDA says. Generally, allow 6 minutes per pound to thaw.

Once you’ve got the turkey thawed, it’s time to think about how to cook it

“A simple, fool-proof way to make sure your turkey is moist and delicious is to stuff it with aromatics,” said Tim McDermott, an educator with OSU Extension. Good choices of aromatics include fresh herbs like sage, thyme, and rosemary, plus vegetables like onions and leeks.

McDermott, who runs the Growing Franklin food production blog, demonstrates how to thaw and roast a turkey in an episode of “Extension Today,” videos created in partnership with NBC4 WCMH-TV. The weekly segment airs stories about gardening, cooking, and other tips and resources for improving Ohioans’ gardens, lives, families, and local communities on Wednesday afternoons, and Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“To prepare your turkey for roasting, in addition to the aromatics, season the inside and outside of the turkey liberally with salt and pepper and coat it with olive oil, which will help the turkey get nice and golden brown, that color that everyone is going to be really happy with when you pull it out of the oven,” McDermott says. “Kitchen or butcher’s twine can be used to truss the legs together and the wings close to the side of the bird, so it roasts evenly.”

To view the video and access the playlist of previously aired segments, visit go.osu.edu/ExtensionToday.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, turner.490@osu.edu.

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