While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.
So, when should you start thawing your turkey? Here are the FDA’s tips on how to freeze your turkey and thaw it safely.
Freezing your turkey
According to the USDA, you should store your turkey in your freezer immediately after returning home from the grocery store.
The USDA says frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any other place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored.
In fact, a package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter for more than 2 hours is no longer at a safe temperature.
Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is considered in the "Danger Zone" between 40 and 140 °F — at a temperature where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly.
Here are three safe ways to thaw your turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven.
Thawing turkey in the fridge
When you are thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, you’ll want to plan ahead.
Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
The USDA suggests allowing approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below.
In addition, place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods.
Refrigerator thawing times:
- 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 days
A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking.
The USDA notes that foods thawed in the fridge can be refrozen without cooking, but there may be some loss of quality.
Thawing turkey in cold water
When thawing your bird in cold water, you will want to allow about 30 minutes per pound.
"First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product," the USDA wrote.
Next, submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water, making sure to change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.
Cold water thawing times:
- 4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
- 12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
- 16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
- 20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours
The USDA said a turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.
Thawing a turkey with the microwave
Yes, you can even safely thaw a turkey using a microwave.
Make sure to follow the microwave oven manufacturer's instructions when defrosting a turkey.
Next, plan to cook it immediately after thawing, because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.