How To Thaw A Frozen Turkey

Thanksgiving Disaster Frozen Turkey

It was our first Thanksgiving in the country, having given up our rent-controlled apartment in New York City. We’d planned a quiet celebration alone—until good friends called that Wednesday. They, too, wanted a country Thanksgiving. With their teenagers. Suddenly, a twosome with a turkey breast morphed into a sixsome with a whole bird. We ran to the store, fought the crowds, and stocked up on everything—including one of the last frozen turkeys. Not surprisingly, it still wasn’t thawed by the next morning.

Did we panic? Not on your life. Because we knew that a frozen turkey—whether partially or even fully—can’t stop Thanksgiving dinner. Delay it a little, yes, but not deter it.

How to thaw a frozen turkey at the last moment? There are two solutions to this disaster. Which you choose depends on how much effort you want to muster and how much time you have to sit around and sip some wine while you wait.

More Effort, Less Time. Peel off the wrapper and place the bird in a bowl big enough so you can submerge the entire thing in cold tap water. Do so. Set your birdish aquarium on the counter. Swap out the stagnant turkey water for fresh cold water every 30 minutes or so until the turkey is thawed, about two hours for a 10-pounder, up to six hours for a 20-pound mutant. (Don’t worry. The cold water will keep your turkey-in-a-bowl from turning into a petri dish.) Dig out the giblets and neck. Stuff, slather, and roast as your recipe directs.

Less Effort, Even Less Time. Unwrap the bird-cicle, plop it in a roasting pan, shove it in a preheated oven, and don’t look back. Surprised? Don’t be. Even fully frozen turkeys can be roasted without thawing them. That much meat, that much insulating bone, that much skin—it’s not like it’s a gimpy little game hen.

We went with the latter, if only because we wanted to put the effort into making a second pie. (Two teenagers.) But when doing the freezer-to-oven trick, bear in mind these caveats:

  • Add up to 50% additional roasting time. Dinner may be a little late. Deal. Just don’t be tempted to crank up the oven’s temperature past 350°F (176°C). Fully frozen birds roast best at 325°F (163°C), in part because the slow, low roasting approach means the breast meat doesn’t dry out before the thighs are done.
  • Tent the bird loosely with foil should the skin start to look less like Jennifer Lopez and more like George Hamilton.
  • Don’t forget to dig out the frozen giblets. After thirty minutes, use long-handled tongs to try to pull them out of both openings. If unsuccessful, try again at the one-hour mark. Still unsuccessful? If the giblets roam free or are in a paper bag, you really needn’t remove them at all. They’ll leave a reddish sludge in the roasting pan, although you can toss them—and said sludge, as well as the pan juices—before you carve the turkey. But if the giblets are in a plastic bag, they must be removed before the bag starts to melt. Should you discover this too late, default to an all-sides dinner—or takeout Chinese.

Of course, you can avoid any Thanksgiving day shenanigans by allowing the turkey ample time to thaw. A 12-pound bird takes about three days in the fridge; a 16-pound bird, about four days; a 20-pound bird, about five days. In all cases, set the turkey on a large rimmed plate or a roasting pan to catch those inevitable drips.

One last note: prestuffed frozen birds should only be roasted right from their frozen state. Unwrap them and follow the package directions. Not, of course, that LC readers would ever buy a prestuffed frozen turkey.

Click here for Thanksgiving Disaster 2: The Bird’s Too Big for the Oven

About Bruce Weinstein | Mark Scarbrough

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are exhausted. Twenty cookbooks in 12 years. Several other books for persnickety celebs. (Shhh. Confidentiality agreements.) More than 10,000 original recipes tested, tweaked, and perfected. A million or so hours on cross-training equipment, not to mention many, many pairs of elastic-waistband pants. Their work can be found in the James Beard Award-nominated Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter and Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese. They’ve also written for many of the food bigwigs, including The New York Times, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, the late Gourmet, and, in a fit of modern irony, About three years ago, they left Manhattan for New England—or what Cole Porter called “this rural America thing”--to share several acres with some resident moose and bear, as well as an irascible collie named Dreydl.

  1. Inez says:

    I will admit to purchasing the pre-stuffed bird, and while not as tasty as my own, or my Mom’s, it was one shortcut that, if good enough for Mom, is good enough for me.

    • David Leite says:

      In a pinch that does work. But I think it’s almost as easy to make dressing/stuffing. Bread, celery, onions, herbs, stock and bing, bang, bong, you’re done!

  2. Rita J says:

    This is so funny, I roasted a frozen turkey, no plastic bags in it. The top half cooked and the bottom half didn’t roast. My new stove had two elements and both had to be turned on when roasting. Who knew?

    My Aunt laughed and said she was glad to have me all to her self, we carved off and ate the cooked meat and put the rest back in the oven.

    When you eat with the people you love… the food is not the main course.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Love this story, Rita. And I love your takeaway message. You’re so right. We get so caught up with what’s on the table on Thanksgiving, it’s easy to lose sight of whose around the table. We appreciate the reminder…

    • Rita: We must have the same stove. Bruce despises that the top element comes on. He’s figured out some way to keep it off and still get the right temperature. Don’t ask me–I sneeze around mechanical devices. But I’m glad your meal came out a feast and not a famine. I’d say that’s the spirit of the holiday.

  3. Jenn says:

    Actually, you do not have to unwrap the bird to defrost in water. If you have a utility bucket, throw it in wrapping and all with the cold tap water. It defrosts overnight, easy-peasy.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      My guess is that you’re leaving the turkey out back on a porch in temperatures that are just barely above freezing, yes, Jenn?

  4. I like this story. This can actually come in handy on Thanksgiving emergencies like this.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Glad you found it handy, Jeff. Many thanks for saying so! May your turkey day be blissfully free of last-minute ice crystals…

  5. Jasper says:

    I brine the bird from frozen for a day, kills two birds in one stone.

  6. John Davey says:

    Fresh Turkey for Thanksgiving? No, thanks.

    It’s November in Michigan, and it’s blowing snow all over the place. We all love our Mom, but she has the knack for marrying insufferable bores. Her third was the worst; we still refer to Chuck as “Chuck You, Farlie.” Well, this genius promised Mom he would get her a turkey for Thanksgiving, and so he did. A freshly-killed bird that needed to be fully dressed and cooked for dinner that night, as he would be bringing his parents, and he, being right all the time, was convinced that a fresh bird was always better than anything you could buy at the store.

    As we lived on a farm, we were used to having a fresh chicken dinner every other Sunday. Kathy (my Irish twin) and I would kill the birds (usually two, as there were seven kids, Mom, and the bore to feed). Killing chickens in the winter is so much more fun. One holds the feet, the other holds the head and the machete. Once the head is removed, the trick is to toss it behind you to avoid the spurting blood as the victim spins, jumps, and sprays blood all over the lawn (in the winter, two birds can turn the whole white yard red in just a couple minutes). They’re then hung on the clothesline until they’re bled out, and the plucking begins. Kathy & I would do the basic plucking, but doing the pinfeathers usually ended up being done by Ginny & Maggie (they’re the two oldest and, at the time, Ginny was the most patient and Maggie the most meticulous). Then the birds get turned over to Mom, and a couple hours later, we have dinner. “Not today,” says Mom. “This thing is huge, ugly, and it’s not going in my oven.” The genius hasn’t heard any of this, as he’s already headed out to fetch his parents (about an hour’s drive away). Time for Mom to go to work.

    The deceased fowl was unceremoniously crammed into a wood produce box (those old things that held a bushel of celery and you closed it with baling wire). On her way to the grocery store, it got thrown into the ditch about a mile down the road. It’s Thanksgiving morning, and there’s only one grocery store open, and the only thing available is an 18-pounder, fully stuffed, ready to bake, and frozen hard as a rock. She slathered that sucker with butter and some seasonings, and into the roaster it went. You know the one, your grandmother’s enamelware roaster you now have in the garage, and you’ve filled it with nuts & bolts and miscellaneous electrical wires.

    About three hours and a few beers later, the genius returns with his parents in tow and spends the rest of the afternoon extolling the virtues of farm living, healthy eating, and various other tales that only reinforced what a revolting creature he really was. Mom’s afternoon alternates between preparing everything else that goes with dinner while keeping the buffoon away from the oven to check on “his prize bird.”

    As with everything else that mothers do, dinner is great, all the trimmings are perfect, and all of us are thoroughly entertained with another dissertation on how much better a fresh turkey is than “that store-bought crap.” All of us at the table nearly exploded when his mother complimented the girls on what a good job they did with the pinfeathers, as she knew just how much work was put into it. And to this day, none of us can forget that small victory, and the joy we got in pulling it off.

    We found the empty produce box sometime around March or April when the spring thaw was in progress. Mom told us we could throw it away; it had served its purpose.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      John, we love your story, and so eloquently told. Thank you for sharing and happy, happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Leite’s!

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