How to Defrost a Turkey — Even If It's Still Frozen on Thanksgiving Day

If it's Thanksgiving Day, you're finally ready to get your cook on, and you merrily reach for the turkey in the fridge only to realize it's still a frigid solid mass, don't panic. We have tips on how to defrost your turkey (and fast), how to know when your turkey's completely defrosted, what to do if you just simply don't have time to thaw your bird, and, most importantly, how to do so safely, according to nutrition expert Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, a food-safety consultant and author of "Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Whole Family."

How to Defrost a Turkey in the Fridge

The best-case scenario is to defrost your bird in the fridge — and you'll need several days to do so. Set the turkey unopened on a tray, breast-side up, and put it in a fridge that's 40 degrees or below, Amidor says. For every four pounds of turkey, it'll need about a day in the fridge to defrost completely. (For example, if your turkey weighs 16 pounds, it will take about four days to thaw. You can also use this handy calculator from Butterball to do the math for you.) Once fully defrosted, the turkey can sit in the fridge for up to two more days before cooking, Amidor says.

How to Defrost a Turkey Fast

If you've missed the fridge-thawing window, your best bet is to defrost your turkey in cold water. You'll want to submerge the turkey (breast-side down with its original wrapping still on) in a sink or a big container full of cold water. "You want the water to be cold, so the turkey stays at a safe temperature to minimize the growth of any harmful bacteria," Amidor says. You should change the water every 30 minutes with all new water.

"Using this method, it takes 30 minutes to defrost one pound," Amidor says. So a 16-pound turkey, for example, will take eight hours to defrost. (If the math isn't mathing, simply plug the weight of your turkey into Butterball's turkey defrost time calculator.) "Once the turkey has thawed, cook it immediately," Amidor says.

How to Tell If a Turkey Is Fully Defrosted

You perform two tests on the bird to confirm that it's completely defrosted: reach your hand into the bird's cavity to make sure there aren't any ice crystals, and poke the thicker parts of the turkey with a fork. If you get icicles doing either one of these, then your turkey needs more time to warm up.

How to Cook a Frozen Turkey

Hours of thawing time may not be an option, in which case you can cook the bird from its frozen state as long as your bird is unstuffed. Just note that it'll take longer to cook than a fresh or thawed turkey, Amidor says, and while "roasting can be done to an unstuffed frozen turkey, you cannot cook a frozen turkey on the grill, deep fat fry, microwave, or smoke it."

"To determine cooking time, look at the timetable for oven-roasting a whole turkey for the size you have, and add 50 percent of that time to the original time," Amidor says. For example, instead of cooking a 12-pound turkey for 3-3.5 hours, you'll need to cook it for 4.5 to 5.25 hours. To make sure your turkey is done, you'll need to use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature in the innermost thigh, wing, and thickest part of the breast. It should reach 165°F.

— Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo