According to the US Department of Agriculture, cooks should allow for about one day of thawing per 4-5 pounds of a turkey’s weight, in a refrigerator set at or below 40°F. With that in mind, an average 16-20 pound turkey will likely need about four or five days in a refrigerator to thaw before cooking.
In regard to the days leading up to Thanksgiving, cooks who choose to thaw a frozen turkey in a refrigerator should likely have their bird set up by these dates:
Nov. 17-18: 20 to 24 pounds
Nov. 18-19: 16 to 20 pounds
Nov. 19-20: 12 to 16 pounds
Nov. 20-21: 4 to 12 pounds
The USDA noted that a thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking. Further, turkeys should be placed in a drip-proof container while thawing in the refrigerator to protect other food items.
Cold water thawing
Some cooks who don’t set aside multiple days for a turkey to thaw in the fridge instead choose to use cold water. The USDA recommended that turkeys thawed using this method be put into a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and extra water absorption and that they be submerged in cold tap water for about 30 minutes per pound.
The timing for a cold water thawing strategy could look like this:
- 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 also noted that the water should be changed out about every 30 minutes, and turkeys thawed using this method should be cooked immediately.