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I'm aware of a few methods (many days in the refrigerator, hours under cold water, etc.) for thawing a whole turkey before cooking it. However, I don't know how these methods balance against each other for,

  1. Speed (do we have days or hours to thaw this turkey?),
  2. Safety (something about bacterial growth),
  3. Ease (is there a trick to this that makes it way more convenient?)
  4. ...?

What are the options?

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For the visual learners i have a youtube video: youtube.com/watch?v=6wXp09HwJjA –  chrisjlee Nov 26 '11 at 3:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Let's start with the assumption that Safety is never in the balance. Safety has to be taken into account for any method that we use and that means that we want to keep any food that is time and temperature sensitive out of the danger zone. The danger zone is the temperature range from 40 degrees F to 140 degrees F.

If you have plenty of time, letting the turkey defrost in the refrigerator is safest and easiest, since there is little that you have to do. The turkey is always out of the danger zone and all you have to do is put it in the refrigerator. However, it can take a very long time, 24 hours for each 5 pounds of turkey weight...4 days for a 20 pound turkey.

Assuming you haven't planned that far ahead, the other safe method is to defrost in the sink with cold running water. The water doesn't need to be pouring out, just a steady stream so the water turns over regularly. Water is a better conductor of heat than air, so the turkey will defrost more rapidly than in the refrigerator.

The danger zone is why you don't want to defrost the turkey using warm water, or just sitting on the counter. In either of those cases, the outside meat is warmed into the danger zone before the inside defrosts, so you have some of the meat (the part that is most likely to have come into contact with contaminants) in a temperature range that promotes bacterial growth.

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I don't even want to imagine the water costs from trying to defrost a whole turkey under the tap... even just defrosting a few chicken breasts is a pain! –  Aaronut Nov 27 '10 at 17:17
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Ah, that was a good description of, "the danger zone." I get it. –  Andres Jaan Tack Nov 28 '10 at 13:35

Cooler Thawing

At home we thaw our turkey in a cooler in the tub. This keeps the water cooler longer, frees up the sink, completely submerges the turkey. Make sure to thoroughly clean the cooler before and after with antibacterial dish-washing soap.

The turkey has to be tightly sealed with no leaks. The tissues absorb water and consistency of meat will change.

Keep the water as close to 40 degrees F. as possible. Check frequently. Change water when it is close to 40 (or you can drip the water into it the cooler so it overflows slowly into the tub - For better food safety this is the preferred choice). If you have to leave overnight drip water into cooler.

USDA (USDA Turkey Thawing) says 30 minutes per pound to thaw or

Turkey Weight - Thaw Time In Cold Water

10 to 14 lbs - 5 to 7 hours

14 to 18 lbs - 7 to 9 hours

18 to 22 lbs - 9 to 11 hours

22 to 26 lbs - 11 to 13 hours

Cook as soon as possible, because this method is not a controlled environment.

Make sure to sanitize your tub.

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