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Thawing and preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving

Posted: November 21, 2014 1:30 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2014 1:27 p.m.

Thawing: Three ways are safe—in the refrigerator, in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes, or in a microwave oven. Do not thaw a turkey at room temperature. Make sure the turkey is completely thawed before cooking.

Thawing a Turkey in the Refrigerator: This method takes the longest time but is the easiest and safest way. Put the frozen turkey (still in its original packaging) on a deep tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. This will prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods. This method requires planning ahead as it will take about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. A 20-pound turkey will take between four and five days to completely thaw. It is safe to keep the thawed bird in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days before cooking it.

Thawing in Cold Water: This method requires the most time and attention as well as a deep kitchen sink. Put the frozen turkey (still in its original packaging) in the clean sink. Cover the turkey completely with cold water. It will take about 30 minutes per pound to completely thaw the turkey. A 20-pound bird will take ten hours to thaw. The water must also be changed every 30 minutes to be sure it is cold. If the packaging is torn, put the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag, close completely and then place in water. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

Thawing in the Microwave: To thaw in the microwave, check your owner’s manual to be sure that your turkey is not too big for the size of your microwave oven. Also, check the minutes per pound and the power level to use for thawing as well as cooking. Turkeys thawed in a microwave must be cooked immediately after thawing.


After thawing, prepare the turkey for cooking.

Remove the original packaging from the thawed or fresh turkey.

Remove the giblet packet from the body or neck cavity.

If you are stuffing the turkey, stuff immediately before cooking.

Return the legs to a tucked position, if untucked.

Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh, without touching bone. If you are using an instant-read thermometer instead of a meat thermometer, do not keep the thermometer in the bird while it is cooking.

Brush the skin with oil to prevent drying. 

Wash hands, utensils, sink and everything that has been in contact with the raw turkey. After washing, sanitize the counter, sinks and any containers or trays that have been used. To sanitize, prepare a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of warm, not hot, water. Immerse the washed items in this solution, remove, and let air dry. If you cannot immerse the item, such as the countertop, saturate the surface with the sanitizing solution and let air-dry.

It is best not to rinse the turkey before cooking because the rinse water would contaminate the sink and, if water is splashed, the counter and other surfaces around the sink. Cooking the turkey to a safe temperature—165 °F or hotter —kills bacteria on the surface of the turkey.

For questions regarding food safety and nutrition, contact Deon S. Legette at 432-9071 or visit the Clemson University Home & Garden Information Center website at


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