Thanksgiving Basics: How to thaw a frozen turkey

A frozen turkey can still make a Thanksgiving feast, as long as you thaw it correctly.
A frozen turkey can still make a Thanksgiving feast, as long as you thaw it correctly.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

While a great fresh turkey is everyone’s dream for Thanksgiving, they can be hard to find and expensive to buy. But a frozen turkey – one that has been properly handled and has been carefully defrosted – can be almost as good.

To find one, go to a market that does a brisk business so there is quick turnover. Choose turkeys that are rock-hard, preferably from the bottom of the bin – partial defrosting is a frozen bird’s worst enemy. Ideally, don’t buy the bird until you are ready to begin defrosting it – it’s a rare home freezer that can reliably maintain a deep enough chill.

VIDEO: Brining and roasting a turkey

The goal in defrosting a turkey – or any other food – is to do it as slowly as possible in order to maintain the best quality. Turkey that has been too quickly defrosted can be mealy and dry.


There are two recommended ways to thaw a frozen turkey.

The best way is in the refrigerator, though it takes more time. With the bird still in its wrapper, rinse it briefly under cool running water. Pat it dry and put it on a tray to catch any moisture. Put the tray on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. When the turkey has partially defrosted, you can unwrap it and remove the giblet bag from the cavity.

According to the Department of Agriculture website, a 4- to 12-pound turkey will take one to three days to defrost completely; a 12- to 16-pound turkey will take three to four days; a 16- to 20-pound turkey four to five days and a 20- to 24-pound turkey five to six days.

If you want to dry-brine the turkey, you can do this from the frozen state. After rinsing the bird, remove the wrapper, pat the turkey dry, sprinkle it with salt and place in a large sealable plastic bag. Refrigerate for the length of time advised, massaging the bird once a day to distribute the salt. This will season and defrost the turkey at the same time.

If you’re short on time, you can defrost a turkey much more quickly by submerging it in a sink full of cool water. Change the water several times during the defrosting to keep the water from getting too cold. According to the USDA, a 4- to 12-pound turkey will take two to six hours to defrost; a 12- to 16-pound turkey six to eight hours; a 16- to 20-pound turkey eight to 10 hours and a 20- to 24-pound turkey 10 to 12 hours.


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