How To Thaw A Frozen Turkey Pronto

How To Thaw A Frozen Turkey Pronto explains what to do when it’s hours before you want to eat Thanksgiving dinner and your turkey is still frozen solid. Spoiler alert: Step 1. Don’t panic.

An illustration of a turkey encased in ice.

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. Originally published November 19, 2011.

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



  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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…

  3. 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.

    1. 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!

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