Food Safety, Preparation and Storage Tips
Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, the University of Arizona

Thawing a Turkey

The safe way to thaw a turkey is in your refrigerator. It can also be thawed under cold water. To prevent harmful bacterial growth, keep the turkey cold while thawing and cook it promptly after thawing. Here are refrigerator thawing times for various size turkeys:

An 8 to 12 pound turkey takes 1 to 2 days to thaw in the refrigerator.

A 12 to 16 pound turkey takes 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.

A 16 to 20 pound turkey takes 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.

Pieces of a turkey, such as a half or quarter will take 1 to 2 days thawing time in the refrigerator.

To thaw a turkey in cold water, check the wrapping to make sure there are no tears. Then, place the bird in its unopened bag in the sink or in a large container and cover it with cold water. If the wrapping is torn, place the turkey in another plastic bag, close securely, and place in cold ice water. Change the water every 30 minutes to assure safe and effective thawing and be sure the water is ice-cold.

Smaller turkeys can be thawed in a microwave oven. Since microwave ovens vary, check the manufacturer's instructions for the size turkey that will fit in the oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. The turkey should be cooked immediately after thawing.

Do not thaw the turkey on the kitchen counter. At room temperatures, a frozen turkey will thaw from the outside in. As the surface warms, bacteria will multiply. By the time the turkey is thawed, the surface bacteria could multiply to dangerously high levels. One cannot rely on cooking to destroy all bacteria because some produce toxins that can not be destroyed through cooking.

Frozen, prestuffed turkeys should not be thawed before cooking. Cook them from the frozen state. However, these turkeys are not recommended.

Frozen, unstuffed turkeys can be cooked without being thawed.

A whole frozen turkey can be stored in your home freezer at 0° F or below for up to one year without loss of quality. A fresh turkey must be cooked or frozen within 1 to 2 days.

These recommendations for thawing turkey will ensure your turkey is safely prepared.


  • University of Minnesota Script, “Thawing the Turkey,” 1995
  • Turkey Basics: Safe Defrosting.
  • USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-800-535-4555
  • Butterball Turkey Talk Line (November and December only)

Material written by Mary Abgrall and Scottie Misner, June 1998.
Part of Food Safety Tips, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona
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