If you are hosting the holiday feast this Thanksgiving, chances are you are in charge of cooking the turkey. While it is easy enough to assign out various dishes, such as sweet potato casseroles, green bean casseroles, and family-favorite desserts, it is a little difficult to cook and transport a turkey, so it is best to leave that job to the host/hostess. Now is a good time to purchase the turkey and keep it frozen, but when should you thaw the turkey? While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. As soon as it begins to thaw, however, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow again. There are only three ways to safely thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.
Thaw Your Turkey in the Refrigerator (Recommended Method)
The best way to defrost a turkey is in the refrigerator. According to the USDA guidelines, this is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature.Give yourself about one day of thawing for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. If your turkey weighs 16 pounds, for instance, it will take about four days to thaw in the refrigerator. Once thawed, you can safely keep the uncooked turkey in the refrigerator for another two days, so you should start thawing it up to six days before you intend to eat it. If you plan on using a brine to season your turkey, be sure to factor in brine time as well.
Thaw Your Turkey in Cold Water
If you forgot to put the turkey in the refrigerator earlier in the week but still have a little time, a cold-water thaw in a large sink is your next best option. Leave the turkey in its original wrapping and submerge it (breast side down) in a sink or container full of cold water. It is important that the water in the sink is cold so that the turkey remains at a safe temperature, so change the water about every 30 minutes to keep the bird chilled. Allow 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound; a 16-pound turkey should take about 8 hours to thaw using this method.
Thaw Your Turkey in the Microwave
Your guests are arriving in a few hours, and you don’t even have time to use a cold-water thaw? Before changing the menu and opting to grill outside, consider using the microwave for thawing, but do a little homework first. Will your big bird even fit in your microwave? Since microwave ovens vary, check the owner’s manual for the minutes per pound and proper power level for thawing a whole turkey. Once you have that figured out, remove the wrappings and place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish big enough to catch any juices that may leak. Use the defrost function of your microwave, and, as a general rule, allow 6 minutes per pound to thaw a turkey. Rotate the turkey several times and check to make sure it is defrosting, and not cooking. Once the turkey has thawed you need to cook it immediately; do not refreeze or refrigerate your turkey after thawing in the microwave oven.
How NOT to Thaw a Turkey
Never, never, never, for the health and safety of your family and loved ones, thaw a turkey by placing it on your kitchen counter or outside on the porch. I don’t care if your grandma always did it that way and nobody ever got sick (that you know of). Just don’t do it. And if you have read about the crazy technique of placing a frozen bird in the dishwasher and running it through a cycle of hot water, forget about it. Not only is it a huge waste of water and energy but, by ever-so-slowly heating the outside of the turkey (while the inside is still frozen) you are creating the perfect environment for bacteria associated with foodborne illnesses to multiply to dangerous levels.