The Ultimate Guide: How Long to Thaw a Turkey to Safely Prepare Your Thanksgiving Bird

Plus three ways to safely thaw.

It's almost Thanksgiving, and you're super proud of yourself for getting organized about all the details. After buying a quality frozen turkey, you stuff it into the freezer and attend to other Thanksgiving dinner tasks. 

Whether it's preparing mashed potatoes, your family's secret stuffing recipe, or the best pumpkin pie ever, you're ready. You've got every ingredient, your desserts are all set, and your prep work for the holiday dinner is done. 

Then, just a couple of days before Thanksgiving, you panic as you try to figure out how long to thaw a turkey. Don't lose your mind just yet — we've got the information you need about how to defrost a turkey the right way. From thawing time in the refrigerator to the fastest way to defrost a turkey, you've got help.

Check out our best methods ahead on how long to thaw a turkey. They'll help get you ready for the onslaught of prep work, cooking and baking it takes to host Thanksgiving dinner. Use these simple techniques for thawing turkey so you can focus on the best fall pies to wow your guests. Once you learn, you'll never forget how long to thaw a turkey no matter how many Thanksgivings you host. 

How Long Does It Take a 20-Pound Turkey to Thaw in the Refrigerator?

If you have a massive, 20-pound turkey on your hands, it's just as easy to defrost in the refrigerator. A bird will need 24 hours in the fridge for every 5 pounds. This means you'll need four days for a 20-pounder to thaw out completely. 

It's a good idea to leave the turkey in its original wrapping and place it into a lined roasting pan. This way, the turkey won't absorb other smells from the refrigerator. It should be stored on the bottom shelf where the temperature is coldest.

Can I Leave a Turkey Out Overnight to Thaw?

Leaving a turkey out overnight to thaw is never a good idea. Meat that is frozen thaws first in the outer layers and last in the inner layers. If a turkey is left out on the counter, the outer layers will thaw out too much and reach a potentially harmful temperature. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a turkey whose temperature climbs between 40 and 140 degrees F is at risk for the growth of dangerous bacteria. Make sure to use the refrigeration method above to avoid this possibility.

What Is the Fastest Way to Defrost a Turkey?

If you want to defrost a turkey with the fastest method, you can use cold water to do the work more quickly. The wrapped turkey sits in cold water in a container in the sink until it is thawed. The water needs to be changed every 30 minutes to keep the temperature cold. 

Depending on the size of your turkey, it can rest in the cold water for 30 minutes per pound. For example, a 10-pound turkey takes five hours of thawing time submerged in cold water. 

Can I Thaw Turkey in Cold Water Overnight?

The cold-water method to thaw a turkey should not be used overnight. You need to change out the water every 30 minutes up to the maximum time of 12-15 hours for a 24-29-pound turkey. Since you can't stay up overnight to change the water, it's best to defrost a turkey during the day.

Three Ways to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey

  • Fridge method: When using the refrigerator method, determining how long to thaw a turkey becomes a specific equation. A turkey needs 24 hours in the fridge to defrost for every 5 pounds of turkey. A 10-pound turkey needs two days to defrost, while a 15-pound turkey would need three days, and so on. Keep the turkey in its original wrapping and place it at the bottom of the refrigerator in a roasting pan. Once defrosted, a turkey can stay in the fridge for up to two days before it should go in the oven.
  • Cold-water method: For the cold-water method on how to defrost a turkey, submerge the turkey breast side down in cold water. You can place it into a large pot or use the sink itself if small. Leave the turkey in its original wrapping and be sure to change the cold water every 30 minutes. Keep in mind that it takes about 30 minutes per pound to thaw a turkey.
  • Cook frozen method: When all else fails, there's still one way to save Thanksgiving Day dinner. The USDA has indicated you can actually safely cook a turkey while it's still frozen. The cooking time will increase by 50%. A 15-pound turkey normally takes 3¼ to four hours to cook at 325 F. From frozen, it may take between 4½ to six hours when filled with stuffing to reach golden brown perfection.

READ MORE: Does Pumpkin Pie Need To Be Refrigerated? How to Correctly Store Your Pies