How to Thaw Turkey for Thanksgiving, Fast

This is really important you guys - you need to thaw the turkey before you can cook it. I know, I know, that's totally common sense, but I make this mistake every year. It's not that I haven't learned, it's just that I only cook a bird this big once a year... so it's more that I forget how long it takes to thaw a frozen turkey.

There's nothing worse than waking up and realizing you forgot to thaw the Thanksgiving turkey. But if you did, don't worry - the big day isn't ruined. We know some quick ways to get that turkey defrosted in time for your Thanksgiving meal. We have a whole how-to guide with the nitty-gritty, detailing everything you need to know about thawing a turkey. This here is our quick reference guide to help you with thawing times.

Defrosting a frozen bird fast only takes a kitchen sink and can be achieved on Thanksgiving morning if your bird is small enough. For 15-pound birds, well, let's just say you might want to reconsider your Thanksgiving meal plan.

The One Way You Should Never Thaw Your Turkey

Room temperature, sitting on the countertop, or placed outside on the cold deck are all ways you should never thaw turkey. This keeps the turkey in unsafe temperatures, allowing bacteria to grow and lead to foodborne illness. Sure, it'll defrost a whole turkey relatively quickly, but it's also a really good way to give your friends and family food poisoning, so let's skip this method.

3 Ways To Safely Thaw Your 20-Pound Turkey The Day Before Thanksgiving

In the Refrigerator

Refrigerator thawing is the number one most recommended way to thaw a turkey. It does take up room in the fridge, but it's the safest way to keep the turkey at a safe temperature for the entire thawing time. The USDA recommends this method, and it's even safe enough that you could re-freeze the thawed turkey if you want to.

Larger turkeys take longer to thaw, but this handy chart from will help you determine how long you need to keep your bird in the fridge. Using the equation for approximately 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of your bird, here are the specific times to figure out how many days of thawing you need for your pounds of turkey.

  • 4 to 12 pounds: 1 to 3 days

  • 12 to 16 pounds: 3 to 4 days

  • 16 to 20 pounds: 4 to 5 days

  • 20 to 24 pounds: 5 to 6 days

Make sure to thaw the turkey in its original packaging at the bottom of the fridge in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination. You'll also want to start this refrigerator method with enough time to make your turkey recipes.

Oster Roaster Oven with Self-Basting Lid

In Cold Water

Yes, you can start thawing turkey on Thanksgiving day!

The cold water method is a great way to quick-thaw a turkey if you've forgotten like I do every year. Not in hot water-that will put your turkey in the danger zone, and you'll be in the same boat as the room temperature method (which we're never using). Instead, use cold tap water and your turkey will be thawed on Thanksgiving morning.

Cold water thawing takes significantly less time than thawing a turkey in the refrigerator. How long it takes depends entirely on the turkey's size, so here's a handy chart from that uses 30 minters per pound. This thawing process is the fastest and a safe way to ensure your roast turkey is prepared safely. Sure, you might have to wake up at 4 am the morning before to get it thawed in time for dinner, but you gotta do what you gotta do!

  • 4 to 12 pounds: 2 to 6 hours

  • 12 to 16 pounds: 6 to 8 hours

  • 16 to 20 pounds: 8 to 10 hours

  • 20 to 24 pounds: 10 to 12 hours

In the Microwave

I only recommend microwave thawing as a very, very, VERY last-minute choice. That is if you can even fit your turkey in the microwave or have a large enough microwave-safe dish! Every microwave is different, so it's hard to have a set rule for this one. Check your manual for the recommended power level and timing based on the weight of the turkey.

Thawing your turkey in the microwave is the only thawing method of the three that requires that you unwrap the turkey from its original wrapping.

Our friends over at Huffington Post were kind enough to put together this infographic that explains all of these timings on one handy chart!

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