Roast turkey with pancetta on a plate

How to defrost a turkey

Learn how to defrost a turkey safely with our essential cookery advice. Try our top tips, different defrosting methods and safety guidance.

If you’re going for a frozen turkey this Christmas, defrosting it properly and safely is very important. We examine the different ways to defrost a whole turkey in time for your Christmas dinner.
Once you’ve defrosted the bird, try our best-ever turkey recipes and our genius roast timer tool, to cook your turkey to perfection. We have everything you need for the big day, from how to prepare and carve a turkey, to our top 10 turkey leftover recipes.
A frozen turkey is a good-value option and means you could opt for a higher welfare bird for less money. It also means you can get ahead and buy your turkey sooner to spread the cost. But, it’s also a massive block of frozen meat that can be a bit daunting to deal with. There are several options when it comes to defrosting a whole turkey depending on your time, space and the size of the bird.

Turkey safety tips

The bacteria in defrosting raw turkey and raw turkey juices can cause sickness. You need to be really careful that they don’t come into contact with other food, especially cooked food. When you handle raw turkey, wash your hands well in hot soapy water before touching anything else.
Any surfaces, boards, containers or cloths that have touched raw turkey or have had raw turkey juice on them need to be washed well before using again. Make sure the packaging on the turkey is intact when you buy it – any rips or tears will mean there’s more chance of the turkey being exposed to other foods and surfaces as it defrosts. The safest temperature to defrost turkey is anything below 10C and never refreeze raw turkey once it’s been defrosted.
Always keep this in mind, regardless of the defrosting method you choose.

Before you start

There is no need to remove the turkey from its packaging before defrosting, unless you choose to use the microwave. If microwaving, remove the packaging and any metal clips and the plastic bag of neck and giblets first. Otherwise, simply remove it from the freezer and use one of the methods below.
Top tip
Things defrost quicker when touching metal, so you’re better off sitting the frozen bird in a large metal roasting tin than a porcelain or pyrex dish.

How to defrost a turkey in the fridge

Pros: it’s the safest and easiest way to defrost a turkey.
Cons: it’s also the longest way to defrost a turkey and takes up lots of fridge space.
How to do it
This is as easy as taking the frozen turkey in its packaging, sitting it in a large roasting tin or dish and putting it in the fridge to defrost slowly. If you can set the temperature of your fridge, then have it at 4C. This is the safest method, as the turkey stays at a constant low temperature.
How long does it take?
The size of your turkey will depend on how long it takes to thaw completely, but as a rough guide, allow about 24hrs for every 2kg of turkey. Most of our turkey recipes call for a 5-6kg turkey, which will take about three full days to thaw in the fridge.

How to defrost a turkey outside

Pros: it frees up space in the fridge or kitchen.
Cons: you need a large sealable plastic container and it only works if it’s cold outside.
How to do it
This only works during cold weather when the outdoor temperature won’t exceed 10C. Sit the frozen turkey straight in a large plastic box with a lid or in a tray or dish in the box and seal. Sit the box in a garage, garden shed, or the boot of a car or van and leave the turkey to defrost.
How long does it take?
It should take about two days.

How to defrost a turkey in the kitchen

Pros: it’s easy to do.
Cons: it’s not that safe as it the kitchen temperature fluctuates and it takes up lots of room in a small kitchen.
How to do it
From a food hygiene perspective, this method isn’t advised, as a warm kitchen is the perfect temperature for bacteria to breed on the bird. But, if you’re careful and you’re going to be cooking the turkey as soon as it’s defrosted, then we can’t dismiss this as an option. Simply sit the frozen turkey in a dish or baking tray in an ambient part of your kitchen (away from ovens or radiators).
How long does it take?
Leave it to defrost for 24hrs.

How to defrost a turkey in cold water

Pros: quick.
Cons: cumbersome and potentially unhygienic if packaging isn’t sealed.
How to do it
Submerge the turkey in its packaging in a large sink of cold water or a large bucket or container. Feel the temperature of the water occasionally and if doesn’t feel cold, replace with cold water. Problems could arise if the packaging isn’t totally sealed or torn, as the water and everything it touches becomes contaminated with raw turkey juices.
How long does it take?
Done safely this method should take about 1 hr for every 1kg of turkey.

How to defrost a turkey in a microwave

Pros: very quick.
Cons: it only works with small turkeys, all the packaging needs to be removed and the microwave needs to be cleaned afterwards.
How to do it
First check the turkey will actually fit in the microwave. Remove all the packaging and any metal clips, as well as the bag of giblets from the cavity. Sit the turkey breast-side up in the microwave. Have a look at your microwave manual if you’ve got one, or initially place on the defrost function for 30 mins, then for 5 min-bursts until defrosted. Clean the microwave thoroughly as soon as the turkey has been removed.
How long does it take?
This method could take up to an hour.

How do I know if my turkey is fully defrosted?

There are a few ways to tell if your turkey has thawed, but for all of them you’ll need to remove the packaging.
  • Touch – remove the bag of giblets and put your hand in the cavity. Touch the inside of the breast bone around the cavity. This shouldn’t feel frozen at all. Press the breast meat, it should feel soft, if it’s solid, it’s still frozen.
  • Wriggle – wriggle the legs and wings, they should be fairly loose. If they are stiff or can’t be moved, the turkey will need to be defrosted further.
  • Temperature – you can insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the leg or breast and if it reads anything below 1C the turkey is still frozen.

Need more festive cooking ideas? Check out our guides and recipes…

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What other essential turkey tips do you need? Leave a comment below…