Roast turkey is a holiday classic, but the work of preparing it begins well before it goes in the oven. Thawing a frozen turkey to prepare it for cooking takes time, space and attention, all of which are usually in short supply in the run-up to a big family meal. There are several thawing methods, some of which are quicker and some of which are less demanding. The exact amount of time it takes to thaw a frozen turkey depends on the method you use and the size of the bird, so pick the best method to fit both your turkey and your schedule.
Thawing in the Refrigerator
Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator can be very slow, particularly for larger birds. On the other hand, once you've started thawing, it requires very little action on your part. You can set the turkey to thaw and leave it, giving you the time to take care of everything else.
To thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, place the bird, still wrapped, on a tray in the refrigerator with the breast facing upward. Thawing will take about a day for every 4 to 5 pounds the turkey weighs, so leave yourself plenty of time. Once the turkey is completely thawed, it will remain safe in the refrigerator for another 2 days, so you have some room for error.
Thawing in Cold Water
If you don't have a few days to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, you can thaw it in cold water. This method is faster but much more labor-intensive; you'll need to monitor the bird and periodically change the water.
To thaw your turkey in cold water, fill a sink or large pan and submerge the bird in it, breast side down. For this method, allow about 30 minutes per pound of turkey. To keep the turkey at a safe temperature, you'll have to change the water periodically as it warms up. Every 30 minutes, empty the water and refill it. As soon as the turkey is defrosted, start preparing it for cooking.
Thawing in the Microwave
Microwave thawing is the quickest way to thaw a turkey, but it requires careful attention to make sure that the bird doesn't start cooking during the thawing process. It also requires that your turkey fit in the microwave, so measure well in advance. The exact time and technique will vary depending on the power of the microwave oven.
To thaw a turkey in the microwave, remove the bird from its wrapping and place it in a microwave-safe dish. Set the microwave to the time and power level recommended by your microwave's manual; as a rule of thumb, thawing will take about 6 minutes per pound, but this can vary significantly. Pause during the thaw to check on the bird, rotating it and flipping it over periodically.
During the thawing process, you may notice that the bird begins to cook. If that happens, let it cool for a few minutes before resuming thawing. Prepare and cook the turkey as soon as thawing is complete.
Other Thawing Methods
On the internet and in casual conversation, people sometimes recommend other methods of thawing a turkey: thawing it with a heating pad is a common suggestion, as is using a hair dryer. What these methods have in common is that they all raise the meat to an unsafe temperature for too long. Avoid them and stick the methods outlined here. If you simply don't have the time or space to thaw your bird, you can cook a partly frozen turkey. Just remember to increase the recommended cooking time by 50 percent.
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Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.