Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during “the big thaw.” While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.
A package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the “Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 °F — at a temperature where food borne bacteria multiply rapidly. Refrigerator thawing is the best method to use to thaw your frozen turkey for Thanksgiving.
Refrigerator Thawing Times
A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator: Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below. Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods
- 4 to 12 pounds …… 1 to 3 days
- 12 to 16 pounds …… 3 to 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds …… 4 to 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds …… 5 to 6 day
As you can see, thawing a 20-pound turkey in the refrigerator will take the better part of a week. So plan ahead! A bit of preparation will ensure that you’re not faced with a still-frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning.