Here’s how to defrost your turkey

This story is part of Home TipsCNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

It’s the time of year when turkey becomes top of mind for home cooks, and especially for those hosting on Nov. 24. If you’ve already purchased your Thanksgiving turkeythat’s a good thing because they’re in short supply this year thanks to an uptick in avian flu. That also means it’s likely tucked away in your freezer and you’ll need to thaw your turkey properly before the feast — a few days before the feast, in fact. Defrosting a turkey safely isn’t tricky but it requires some time so it’s best to make a plan and perhaps even set a reminder.

The good news is that the best way to thaw out a turkey happens to be the easiest, but it also takes the longest. There are really only two ways to safely defrost a turkey and avoid a rubbery bird. (And, no, one of them is not the microwave.) Here are the best ways to safely thaw your turkey — one slow and one a little less so — ahead of Thanksgiving this year.

Can you defrost your turkey on the kitchen counter?

It is not safe, nor is it recommended to defrost a turkey or any poultry at room temperature. The key to safely thawing a turkey is not letting any part of the flesh rise about 40 degrees F for any extended period of time or foodborne bacteria will begin to grow and multiply. Because turkeys are typically so large and take so long to defrost, that rules out letting it thaw out on the kitchen counter.

The best way to thaw a turkey: Use your refrigerator

This method is the most time-consuming option, but will net the best results: The USDA suggests 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, which means you’d need to set aside a few days or up to a week for a large bird. This method requires the least amount of effort. All you have to do is put your turkey in a container to catch drips and let it hang out in the fridge.

Read more: How to Brine a Turkey

Turkey thawing time snapshot

  • 4 to 8 pounds: 24 hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds: 36 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 6 days

This turkey was thawed using cold water.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The fastest (safe) way to defrost a turkey: Use cold water

This method for defrosting a turkey will net faster results than the fridge, but it requires a few more steps too. First, put the turkey in a leak-proof bag and put it in a cold tap water bath in the sink or a large receptacle (such as a cooler or clean recycling bin). The USDA recommends that you change the water every 30 minutes. I’ve found that it’s easiest to defrost your turkey in a cooler that has a spigot: This lets you easily drain the water to make room for fresh water — or drain it completely once the bird is defrosted. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw your turkey using this method.

It takes a little work to go from frozen turkey to a tasty main course.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Can you defrost a turkey in the microwave?

The USDA says that you can defrost your turkey in the microwave as long as you follow the product instructions and cook it immediately after thawing. Even if you can fit that big bird inside, I’d be extremely wary of relying on a microwave to defrost such a large piece of meat. In fact, I’d suggest avoiding the microwave at all costs. Even chickens are difficult to defrost well with a microwave and they’re generally a fraction of the size.

Read more: How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey Outside Without an Oven

If anything, use the thaw setting for just a few minutes to get it started and then employ a combination of the cold water bath and fridge methods above to defrost your turkey. Don’t use the entire time that your microwave suggests for defrosting this amount of frozen meat, especially all in one go. It won’t be pretty, I promise you.

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