Safely defrosting a turkey

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If you're going to use a frozen turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving this year, make sure you defrost it properly and safely. We look at how to defrost a whole turkey in time for your holiday dinner.

A frozen turkey is a good value option because it allows you to choose a higher welfare bird for less money. It also means you can plan ahead of time and purchase your turkey earlier to spread the cost. However, it is a large block of frozen meat that can be difficult to handle. When it comes to defrosting a whole turkey, you have several options depending on your time, space, and the size of the bird.

After you've defrosted the turkey, consult our definitive guide to cooking a turkey. Plus, try our best-ever turkey recipes and clever roast timer tool to ensure your turkey is cooked to perfection. We've got you covered for the big day, from how to prepare and carve a turkey to how to reheat a turkey while keeping it moist, as well as our top 10 turkey leftover recipes.

Slowly defrosting a turkey in the fridge is the safest and simplest method, as it ensures the meat defrosts evenly and at a constant temperature. If you are pressed for time, thawing the turkey under cold water or in the microwave will greatly expedite the process. Alternatively, if you're short on space, defrosting the bird outside or in your kitchen is a good way to make room for the rest of your holiday fare.

Turkey crown on a platter with oranges and garlic

Bacteria found on raw turkey and its juices can cause illness. As a result, you must exercise extreme caution to ensure that they do not come into contact with any other food, particularly cooked food. Before touching anything else, thoroughly wash your hands in hot, soapy water after handling raw turkey.

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Any surfaces, boards, containers, or cloths that have come into contact with raw turkey or its juices must be thoroughly cleaned before reuse. When purchasing a turkey, make sure the packaging is intact; any rips or tears increase the likelihood of the turkey being exposed to other foods and surfaces as it defrosts. Anything below 10 degrees Celsius is the safest temperature to defrost turkey; never refreeze raw turkey after it has been defrosted.

Always keep this in mind, regardless of the defrosting method you use.

Unless you plan to defrost the turkey in the microwave, there is no need to remove it from its packaging before defrosting. Remove the packaging, any metal clips, and the plastic bag containing the neck and giblets before microwaving. Otherwise, simply take it out of the freezer and use one of the methods listed below.

Top tip: Because things defrost faster when they come into contact with metal, it's best to place the frozen bird in a large metal roasting tin rather than a porcelain or glass dish.

It is the safest and simplest way to defrost a turkey.
Cons: It takes the longest to defrost a turkey and takes up a lot of refrigerator space.

What to Do
This is as simple as taking the frozen turkey out of its packaging, placing it in a large roasting tin or dish, and placing it in the fridge to slowly defrost. If your refrigerator has a temperature control, set it to 4 degrees Celsius. This is the most secure method because the turkey will remain at a constant low temperature.

How much time does it take?
The size of your turkey will influence how long it takes to completely defrost, but as a rule of thumb, allow about 24 hours for every 2kg of turkey. Most of our turkey recipes call for a 5-6kg turkey, which will defrost in the fridge for three days.

Sliced turkey on a platter

It saves space in the refrigerator or kitchen.
Cons: a large, sealable plastic container is required, and it only works when it is cold outside.

How to Go About It
This only works in cold weather when the outside temperature does not exceed 10 degrees Celsius. Place the frozen turkey in a large plastic box with a lid, or in the box on a tray or dish. Seal the box and place it in a garage, garden shed, or car boot to defrost the turkey.

How long does it normally take?
It should take two days.

Advantages: It is simple to implement.
Cons: It is not as safe because kitchen temperatures fluctuate. In addition, it takes up a lot of space in a small kitchen.

How to Go About It
This method is not recommended for food safety reasons, as a warm kitchen is ideal for bacteria to breed on the bird. But, if you're careful and plan to cook the turkey as soon as it's defrosted, we can't rule this out. Place the frozen turkey in a dish or baking tray in a warm area of your kitchen (away from ovens or radiators).

How long does it normally take?
Defrost it for 24 hours.

Marmalade glazed turkey on a platter next to cooked oranges

Advantages: quick
Cons: inconvenient and potentially unsanitary if packaging is not sealed

How to Go About It
Place the turkey, still in its packaging, in a large sink, bucket, or container filled with cold water. Check the temperature of the water on a regular basis; if it does not feel cold, replace it with fresh cold water. If the packaging is not completely sealed or torn, the water and everything it comes into contact with will become contaminated with raw turkey juices.

How much time does it take?
If done properly, this method should take about 1 hour per 1kg of turkey.

Pros: extremely fast
Cons include the fact that it only works with small turkeys, that all packaging must be removed, and that the microwave must be cleaned afterward.

How to Go About It
First, make sure the turkey will fit in the microwave. Remove all of the packaging, metal clips, and the bag of giblets from the cavity. Microwave the turkey, breast side up. If you have a microwave, consult the manual or set the defrost function for 30 minutes, then 5 minute bursts until defrosted. Once the turkey has been removed, thoroughly clean the microwave.

How much time does it take?
This procedure could take up to an hour.

Turkey crown on a serving plate surrounded by oranges, red onion and herbs

There are a few ways to tell if your turkey has defrosted, but you'll need to remove the packaging for all of them.

  • Remove the bag of giblets and insert your hand into the cavity. Feel the inside of the breast bone near the cavity. This should not feel frozen in any way. The breast meat should feel soft when pressed. It's still frozen if it's solid.
  • Wiggle the legs and wings - they should be relatively loose. If they are stiff or unable to move, the turkey must be defrosted further.
  • Temperature: A probe thermometer can be inserted into the thickest part of the leg or breast. If it is less than 1 C, the turkey is still frozen.

How to Carve a Turkey in Video
Creating Turkey Stock
Recipes for leftover turkey and ham
Make plans for your Christmas lunch.

Top Food Freezing Tips
Defrosting Chicken
How to Prevent Food Poisoning
Fruits and vegetables: How to Freeze Them
Family recipes that can be frozen

What other important turkey tips do you require? Please leave a comment below.

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