How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Turkey in The Refrigerator?

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Whether it’s for a Thanksgiving feast or just a family get together, it’s important to know how long to defrost turkey. Each type of meat has its own special cooking requirements and when you know how long to defrost turkey, you ensure that your meat is easy to cook and safe to consume.

In this article, we discuss how long to defrost turkey, specifically using the refrigeration method. We then discuss what specific steps you need to follow when thawing a turkey and whether you can cook your turkey without defrosting it.

Ways to defrost a turkey

How long to defrost turkey depends on which method you follow. The refrigeration method is just one of the three ways in which you can defrost a turkey. Here, you remove the turkey meat from the freezer and place it in another area of your fridge, so the cold temperature of the meat comes down gradually.

The other techniques of turkey thawing include:

  • The cold water immersion technique – Here, you immerse the turkey meat into a large bowl of cold water or in the sink. You keep changing the cold water until your turkey is fully thawed.
  • The microwave heating technique – Here, you defrost your turkey by putting it in the microwave for you few minutes, turning it over every few minutes, so all sides are thawed.

While these methods are usable, they’re not ideal all the time. When you use the cold water or microwave defrost method, you’ll need to cook your turkey immediately. Otherwise, there is a risk of the meat spoiling.

But, with the refrigeration turkey thawing method, you have more cooking flexibility at your disposal. Your refrigerator doesn’t allow your thawing turkey to spoil and the ideal temperature in your fridge prevents bacteria from growing on the poultry meat. Plus, you can keep a fully defrosted turkey in your fridge for 2 days. This makes the refrigeration defrost/thawing method the safest. Additionally, it involves the least effort, since you can just put the turkey in the fridge to thaw and forget all about it until you need to cook it.

Now, let’s understand how long to defrost turkey in a refrigerator.

How long to defrost turkey in the fridge?

The time taken to thaw a turkey in the refrigerator depends predominantly on the weight/size of the meat. Smaller cuts and ground turkey meat require lesser time than a whole, uncut turkey.

According to multiple international food safety agencies, you need to follow these timelines to thaw your turkey:

WeightTime to thaw in refrigerator
<4lbs1 full day (24 hours)
4lbs – 8lbs2 full days
8lbs – 12lbs3 full days
12lbs – 16lbs4 full days
16lbs – 20lbs5 full days
20lbs – 24lbs6 full days
>24lbsA full 24 hours each, for every 4lbs-5lbs extra that your turkey weighs.

How long to defrost turkey if you have injected it with spices?

If you are planning on cooking a spicy and juicy meal, you’ll certainly have injected your turkey meat with salt, spices and water. In this case, you’ll need to defrost your turkey for longer.

Here’s a tip: Add 1 full day extra to the time mentioned in the table above to thaw an injected turkey. So, if you have a 10lbs injected turkey, instead of thawing it for 3 days, you’ll need to thaw it for 4 days.

Tips to thaw your turkey the right way

Now that you know how long to defrost turkey, let’s understand the step-by-step process of thawing your turkey meat.

  • Keep the turkey wrapped in the original packaging it came in

The package your turkey comes in is designed to keep the meat safe from spoilage. But if you’ve thrown the wrapping out, use plastic cling wrap or parchment to seal your turkey. Don’t use aluminum foil because over a period of time, the aluminum leaches into the food (particularly when certain spices on/in your turkey have a chemical reaction with the foil), causing the meat to become toxic.

  • Place the turkey in a deep dish to collect the juices

As you thaw your turkey, the juices that are solidified in the meat will start to melt and ooze out. If you don’t use a pan or deep dish to hold the turkey, you could end up with a messy refrigerator that’s coated in turkey juice.

  • Keep your turkey in the fridge after it is fully defrosted

Don’t remove the turkey from the refrigerator even if it is completely thawed. The cold temperature within your fridge will ensure the meat doesn’t develop any microbial activity and remains edible for a few days. So, let the defrosted turkey stay in your fridge until it is time to put it in the oven.

  • Use a food thermometer to check the temperature before cooking

Since your turkey was in the freezer for a long while before you started defrosting it, the temperature of the meat would have been 0° F (-18° C). As you thaw it, your turkey starts to become warmer and softer.

After its defrosted, your turkey needs to be between 30°F (-1.1°C) and 40°F (4.4°C) for you to cook it.

  • Place the turkey in the right spot within your refrigerator

You may be thinking it’s okay to place your turkey meat wherever you want in the fridge to thaw it. But this is wrong. Where you place the meat affects how long it takes to defrost turkey.

You need to understand the anatomy of your refrigerator to place your turkey in the right spot for thawing.

How cold air circulates in the fridge and how this affects turkey defrosting

Cold air is heavier than warm air. So, as the cold air circulates in your refrigerator, it sinks to the bottom and stays there. This keeps the bottom section of the fridge colder than other sections.

Meanwhile, the top shelf, middle shelf and the door sections are not as cold as the bottom. This is because these sections are exposed to warm air often due to the constant opening and closing of the fridge door.

When you remove your turkey from the freezer and place it in the top sections of the fridge, you move it to a warmer place. The sudden drop in temperature may cause your meat to thaw too quickly, developing bacteria much faster and spoiling it.

Instead, when you keep the turkey meat at the bottom section of the fridge, where it is really cold, you slow down the thawing process. You will then be able to keep the turkey meat within the acceptable temperature range, where it will be safe to consume.

Another reason to place your thawing turkey at the bottom of the fridge is food safety. As we’ve discussed, your turkey will ooze out juices as it defrosts. Although this juice can be consumed, you need to cook it on high heat to get rid of any existing germs.

If you keep your turkey on the top/middle shelf, the juices may drip down onto other vegetables, fruits or leftovers on the lower shelves, thereby contaminating them. You’ll need to cook these foods on a very high heat and for a longer duration to de-contaminate them – which can ruin their flavor and nutrition. You’ll be ruining your other foods too by placing your thawing turkey on the higher sections of your fridge.

Cooking your turkey without thawing it – Is this a good idea?

Maybe this is your first-time cooking meat and you didn’t know how long to defrost turkey. So, you didn’t give yourself enough time and now you’re running late. In such an instance, you may be wondering if it’s okay to cook your meat without defrosting it first.

Although this can be done with really small cuts, this is a bad idea with a large turkey. Frozen and unthawed meats take a really long time to cook properly. If you don’t cook the frozen turkey long enough, you won’t be able to kill any germs in the meat and this might lead to food poisoning.

If you try to cook the meat too long to cook the core of the meat, the turkey skin may burn because of excessive heating. Either way, you lose. So, it’s best to thaw your turkey and then cook it.

What if I don’t have the time to defrost my turkey in the refrigerator?

We understand that time may be a constraint sometimes. In such scenarios, you can use either of the two other techniques we’ve mentioned above. If you want to know how long to defrost turkey using these two methods:

  • Cold water immersion – 30 minutes of immersion for each pound of turkey.
  • Microwave heating – 6 minutes of heating per pound.

Of course, again, please remember that these techniques are not the safest. If you’re planning on giving a feast that your guests will remember for all the right reasons, then use a refrigerator to thaw your turkey meat. Just keep in mind how long to defrost turkey and make sure you’ve completed the prep work in time to cook your turkey feast.

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