If you’re the type who buys the biggest turkey you can find for Thanksgiving, then the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends you also be the type to start thawing that bird as soon as possible.
According to the USDA, there are three ways to safely thaw a turkey.
Store in the refrigerator a few days ahead of Thanksgiving.
Immerse the bird in a cold water bath, changing out the water every 30 minutes, and cook immediately after thawing.
Defrost the turkey in the microwave using the defrost function based on weight.
The USDA recommends option one. “This is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature. This method takes some time, so allow one day for each 4-5 pounds of weight.”
If you have a 20-pound bird, you’re already at a deficit. It will take four to five days to fully defrost in the refrigerator and take up valuable real estate in your refrigerator as it does so.
On the other hand, if you plan to serve a 10-pound turkey, it will take 48 to 60 hours to defrost in the refrigerator.
Since a turkey thawed in the refrigerator is safe to leave in the refrigerator an additional two days before cooking, you can get a head start on a smaller bird and start the process today.
If you are working behind the clock on that 20-pound beast still in your freezer, a cold water bath or microwave defrost will work on the day you plan to roast it. According to the USDA, a bird defrosted in the bath or microwave must be cooked immediately.
How NOT to Thaw a Turkey
In case you are wondering, here are some thawing methods that the USDA does not recommend:
thawing a turkey on the counter, in the garage or on the back porch
thawing a turkey in a brown paper grocery bag or plastic garbage bag
using the dishwasher to thaw a turkey (with or without water)
any method that is not the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave
Can you cook a frozen turkey?
If defrosting a turkey still sounds intimidating, the USDA has news for you: Defrosting isn’t necessary. However, you will have to factor in at least 50% more time to fully cook your turkey.
Epicurious recommends roasting your turkey for 13 minutes per pound at 350 F. That translates to about three hours for a 12- to 14-pound turkey and about four hours and 20 minutes for a 20-pounder.
That means roasting a 20-pound frozen turkey will take 6.5 hours and a 12- to 14-pound frozen bird will take 4.5 hours.
Trust the math?
Bacteria that was already present on your turkey starts to grow as soon as the turkey starts to thaw. The only way to kill that bacteria is to cook the meat to a safe internal temperature.
Rather than relying solely on recommended cooking times, the USDA suggests using a food thermometer to confirm the turkey is done.
Your turkey is safe to eat when the temperature reads 165 F in three places
The thickest part of the breast
The innermost part of the thigh
The innermost part of the wing.