For those with a frozen bird to cook for Thanksgiving dinner, planning begins several days ahead of the holiday. Your bird obviously needs enough time to thaw, and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are a few different ways to safely defrost a turkey…but leaving it on the counter at room temperature isn’t one of them.
Why you shouldn’t leave a turkey out on the counter to defrost
To safely defrost a frozen turkey—or any other frozen meat or poultry, for that matter—you’ll want to prevent it from reaching temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the range that foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. The USDA calls it as the “Danger Zone,” and when you leave a frozen turkey out on a counter at room temperature for more than two hours, the temperature of the outer layer falls within that Danger Zone even if the center stays frozen.
In addition to not leaving your turkey out on the counter, the USDA urges consumers to not defrost a frozen turkey:
How to safely defrost a turkey
There are two USDA-approved methods for defrosting a turkey: Placing it in a refrigerator, or a cold-water bath. Either way, some math is involved. To thaw a frozen turkey in a refrigerator, plan on leaving it in for roughly 24 hours for every four to five pounds of poultry. This means bigger birds will need to spend multiple days in there. Once it has thawed, you can safely keep the turkey in the fridge for another day or two before cooking it.
Defrosting a turkey in a cold-water bath is significantly faster, taking around 30 minutes per pound of poultry. Start by submerging the entire turkey in its original packaging. To avoid cross-contamination, you should change the bathwater every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. It’s also important to pay attention to your timing when you’re defrosting a turkey in a cold-water bath. This method doesn’t come with the same flexibility as the fridge, and you should cook your turkey immediately after it’s thawed.