The key to safely thawing a turkey is to keep the external temperature low enough to retard the growth of bacteria while allowing the interior of the turkey to thaw. Planning ahead is important to allow adequate time for the turkey to thaw safely. That said, some methods are quicker than others, and will allow you to begin cooking your turkey sooner. It is important to make sure your turkey is completely thawed before you begin the cooking process; the only exception to this rule is frozen pre-stuffed turkeys that are intended to be cooked in the frozen state. Such turkeys will be clearly marked, and should display a USDA or state inspection seal to ensure food safety.
The easiest and safest way of thawing a turkey is also the most time consuming. Simply move your turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator and let the turkey thaw over a period of several days. As with all thawing methods, the time involved is dependent on the size of your turkey; allow 24 hours for each 4-5 pounds of turkey using the refrigerator technique. For a 12-15 pound turkey, this means starting the thawing process three days before you intend to cook the bird. This method is the safest way to thaw a turkey because it eliminates user error; the turkey is kept at a constant temperature and food safety is ensured.
If you need to thaw the turkey more quickly, consider using the cold water method. Fully submerge the turkey in a sink or large basin filled with cold water. Keep the turkey wrapped to keep the turkey juices from mixing in the water and to keep the turkey from absorbing additional water. To keep the turkey cool, the water should be changed every 30 minutes. This method only takes about 30 minutes per pound, so the same 12-15 pound turkey can be thawed in only 6-8 hours.
Need an even faster method? Consider using your microwave. First, check to make sure that your turkey will fit in the microwave. Because microwave ovens vary in power, consult the manual for instructions on thawing a frozen bird. As an example, with a 1000W Kenmore microwave, you can defrost a turkey breast that weighs up to 6 pounds. It will take approximately an hour, or about 10 minutes per pound. Microwave defrosted turkey should be cooked immediately. To look up your microwave manual, try www.managemylife.com.
In the interest of safety, don’t compromise the defrosting time to speed up your meal. If you absolutely need that turkey cooked this afternoon, and still have a frozen bird, consider a faster cooking technique such as butterflying the turkey. A 12-15 pound turkey can be cooked in less than 2 hours using this method. A sample recipe can be found here. It’s better for your turkey to be done a little bit later than to send your family and guests to the emergency room with food poisoning. For more information about safe turkey thawing and preparation, visit the USDA’s fact sheet Let’s Talk Turkey.