Should You Let Turkey Thaw Overnight?

Is there anything more iconic than a full-roasted turkey? It is almost magical how a frozen light-pink hunk of mass can turn into a deliciously golden roast turkey, but you must make sure you deal with that frozen bird correctly, lest your family get sick.   

The method of simply leaving your turkey out to thaw on the kitchen counter, albeit very easy, is not very safe. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, this method will result in part of your bird entering the "danger zone" temperatures for poultry meat. Meat that is between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees is at high risk of fostering foodborne bacteria that can make people incredibly sick if consumed.

Leaving turkey (or any other large body of meat) out to thaw will result in uneven levels of temperature throughout the bird. As the outer layer defrosts, the center of the bird will still be rock solid, and as the center of the bird defrosts the outer layers become a festering breeding ground for bacteria.

What to do instead of leaving a turkey on the counter

There are better ways to defrost your turkey that are undoubtedly safer, probably a bit cleaner, and perhaps even a bit more convenient for your style of turkey preparation. The USDA's primary suggestion is to defrost turkeys in the refrigerator. Depending on the weight of your turkey, this may take a few days, but turkeys thawed in this way can be kept in the refrigerator for several days after thawing. They can even be refrozen if the need arises, although there may be some loss of flavor and quality of the meat if you decide to do this. 

And so rather than let your turkey thaw overnight on the counter and invite bacterial growth, plan ahead and account for the turkey's size when estimating how long it'll need to stay in the fridge to safely thaw. The basic rule, per the USDA, is 24 hours of refrigerator thawing for every 4-5 pounds of turkey.

Another way, though, if you've got the schedule for it and need a quicker thaw, is to use the cold water thawing method, which is just leaving your turkey in cold water, making sure to change the water every 30 minutes until the bird is no longer frozen. For this method, it will take 30 minutes for every pound of turkey, so for a 7-pound turkey, expect to switch out the water at least seven times and for the turkey to be ready in about four hours.