A Thanksgiving feast is hardly complete without the main course, and for many families, that includes a turkey centerpiece. An estimated 88 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, according to the University of Illinois Extension. This year, that number may be lower due to a turkey shortage brought on by an avian flu outbreak, as Forbes reports, while other families may opt to choose a different main dish for Thanksgiving due to rising turkey prices as a result of inflation.
If you can get your hands on a turkey this Thanksgiving or Christmas, it’s important to follow the recommended food handling guidelines to help prevent foodborne illness. In this article, food safety experts share their dos and don’ts for thawing a turkey smartly, so you can keep yourself — and your friends and family — safe and healthy.
1. Do Wash Your Hands Before and After Handling Raw Poultry
“Before and after handling raw poultry, it’s very important to wash your hands with soap and water,” says Britanny Saunier, executive director at the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Arlington, Virginia.
Cleanliness is a large part of preventing foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for about 20 seconds before and after handling the turkey. This also applies to surfaces that may come in contact with frozen turkey, such as countertops, kitchen towels, cutting boards, food thermometers, and utensils.
2. Don’t Defrost Frozen Turkeys at Room Temperature
“Thawing at room temperature is the biggest mistake to avoid,” says Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate at the Penn State Department of Food Science in University Park, Pennsylvania. “Because meat on the outer portion is exposed to higher temperatures, this can provide the opportunity for pathogen growth even though the inside of the bird may still be frozen.”
Leaving your turkey out on the counter — or any other location where the temperature isn’t controlled — for more than two hours increases the risk of the turkey entering the “danger zone.” That danger zone would be between 40 and 140 degrees F, when bacteria grows the fastest, per the USDA.
3. Do Plan Ahead for Slow Thawing in the Refrigerator
Food safety experts urged the importance of thinking ahead when thawing your bird.
“The key point is planning,” Bucknavage says. “Planning when you need to move the bird from the freezer to the refrigerator, planning to have sufficient space in the refrigerator, and planning for sufficient time to reach safe internal temperatures.”
Of the three ways to safely thaw a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving — refrigerator, cold water, or microwave — the USDA recommends going with the refrigerator method. You’ll need to give yourself ample time. It will take about one whole day for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. So, a 16-pound turkey will take about four days to thaw before it’s ready to be cooked.
“The turkey should be placed in the bottom of your refrigerator in a shallow pan and in its original packaging to prevent juices from dripping on other food products,” Saunier says.
Once thawed, you can keep the turkey in the refrigerator for up to two days, per the USDA.
4. Don’t Thaw in the Microwave and Place Back in the Fridge
Using the microwave is one of the three USDA-approved ways to thaw frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving. But once it’s out of the microwave, it can’t go back in the refrigerator. “Microwave heating can create hot spots in the turkey, which may create opportunities for pathogen growth,” Bucknavage says.
To safely thaw turkey in the microwave, allow about six minutes per pound, as recommended by the USDA. During this process, flip the turkey and rotate it multiple times. Once it’s thawed, the USDA recommends cooking it immediately.
5. Do Thaw in Cold Water, Making Sure to Change the Water and Rotate the Bird Frequently
If you don’t have time or space for the refrigerator method, the cold water method is a safe way to thaw frozen poultry the day of Thanksgiving.
To go this route, place the frozen turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag and fully submerge it in cold water, as FoodSafety.gov instructs. This will take about 30 minutes for every pound of meat, so a 16-pound turkey will need about 8 hours to thaw. You’ll need to diligently change out the cold water every half hour, so set a timer and stay nearby.
“While thawing in cold water isn’t necessarily an unsafe method when followed correctly, often [what is] overlooked [is] the importance of changing the cold water every half hour,” Saunier explains. “Doing this keeps your turkey from thawing in the danger zone.”
Once the turkey is thawed using this method, it’s time to immediately cook it.
6. Don’t Run the Turkey Under Hot Water
If a frozen turkey can thaw in cold water, surely submerging it in hot water will speed things along, right? Actually, no — this is a big “don’t.”
“Thawing a turkey under hot water significantly increases the risk of foodborne illness,” says Jenna Volpe, RDN, who’s based in Austin, Texas. “Hot water brings the turkey into the dreaded danger zone, which allows for dangerous pathogenic bacteria to grow.”
7. Do Cook Frozen Turkey to a Safe Internal Temperature
The holidays are an enjoyable but often chaotic time of the year. If you didn’t leave enough time to thaw the turkey, don’t worry — you can make a (safe) comeback from this.
It’s safe to cook a frozen solid turkey, it just takes longer. The USDA recommends ditching an oven bag for this method and allowing at least 50 percent more cook time. This can take up to 6.5 hours for a 16-pound turkey.
Raw turkey needs to be cooked to the safe internal temperature of 165 degree Fahrenheit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To check the internal temperature, use a food thermometer and check multiple places. Once it’s reached this temperature, it’s time to enjoy!