Turkey defrosting: Days and days
Since the first Thanksgiving, when the Plymouth Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors gathered in 1621 for a bountiful feast, turkey has been an annual Thanksgiving Dinner tradition. For centuries, folks purchased fresh turkeys, or they slaughtered and dressed their own poultry.
However, in recent decades, with increased urbanization and industrialization, most shoppers have opted for conveniently cleaned and frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving and other occasions. Frozen turkeys are usually much more economical than fresh fowl. What’s more, most frozen turkeys sport detailed preparation instructions on their outside wrappers.
A frozen turkey will keep in the freezer (at sub-zero temperatures) for up to a year. A fresh turkey, on the other hand, must be cooked or frozen within 24 to 48 hours to prevent spoilage.
Of course, a frozen turkey must be adequately and properly thawed, or defrosted, for safe preparation.
Turkey defrosting terrors
Why is proper turkey defrosting, or thawing, so important? As a form of poultry, raw or undercooked turkey meat may occasionally be a breeding ground for bacteria known as salmonella.
If humans consume salmonella-infected turkey or other foods, they may develop salmonellosis, a most unpleasant infection. Salmonellosis can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting, In serious cases, salmonellosis may lead to dehydration or even death. Salmonellosis is most dangerous for infants, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.
Salmonella is best avoided, of course. The bacteria do not grow in frozen condition, which is why turkey and many other foods are often stored this way. However, once the turkey leaves the freezer and begins thawing, it must be prepared and fully cooked as soon as possible.
A frozen turkey should not ever be defrosted at room temperature. All too often, cooks attempt to speed up the process this way, with dire results. Because a turkey thaws from the outside in, the outer meat may become a haven for bacteria, while the inner parts are still frozen.
Turkey defrosting tips
Of course, those who select frozen turkeys must plan ahead. Way ahead.
The safest way to defrost a turkey is to use the refrigerator method. Of course, part of the planning for this process includes clearing out the refrigerator to make room for the big bird. (This effort will also pay off after the Thanksgiving feast, when you need to store lots of leftovers.)
Turkey defrosting in the refrigerator
Generally speaking, turkey defrosting in the refrigerator takes a full day (24 hours) for every five pounds. In other words, a 15-pound turkey requires three days. A twenty-pound turkey takes four days. The exact timing may vary somewhat, depending on refrigerator temperature settings. In any case, the refrigerator must be set for 40 degrees (F) or colder.
A fully thawed turkey is critical to cooking success.
Round your turkey’s poundage up to produce an estimated defrosting time. An 18-pound turkey may actually take four days to defrost.
A boneless turkey breast will defrost considerably faster.
Without removing the outer wrapper, place your frozen turkey in a large baking dish. A flat glass pan works well. Be sure the entire frozen turkey is contained within the pan, as you surely do not want thawing turkey drippings to leak and contaminate other foods or the inside of your refrigerator with potential salmonella.
Place the entire pan, frozen turkey and all, inside the refrigerator. Now the waiting begins.
Once thawed, a turkey must be cooked immediately, or at least within a few hours.
Turkey defrosting in cold water
Cold-water turkey defrosting is considerably faster than refrigerator thawing, but it can be somewhat tricky.
Most frozen turkeys take about 30 minutes per pound to defrost in cold water.
To thaw a frozen turkey in cold water, first inspect the outer wrapping to ensure it is intact. If it contains any punctures or leaks, you will want to place the entire package into a sturdy clean plastic bag. Seal the bag securely.
For decades, people have thawed frozen turkeys in their kitchen sinks. This is simply dangerous, as the kitchen sink may be a hotbed of bacteria of all kinds. In addition, holiday food preparation and family activity may require the use of the kitchen sink, while the turkey is still defrosting.
Use a large, leak-proof cooler instead. (Be sure the bottom plug is securely fastened.) Place the wrapped turkey inside the cooler, and fill it with ice-cold water.
Change the water every 30 minutes.
Cook your thawed turkey immediately after defrosting.
Turkey defrosting in the microwave
The smallest turkeys may be defrosted, or thawed, in a microwave oven. This is certainly the fastest method.
In fact, if you choose to microwave-defrost your turkey, you will want to preheat your regular oven at the same time. This will allow you to begin cooking your thawed turkey immediately.
First, remove and discard all wrappings from the turkey. Take the giblet package out of the turkey’s body cavity, and set it aside in a small bowl.
Place the entire turkey in a microwave-safe pan. Be sure the whole turkey fits inside this container, so it will not drip inside the microwave oven.
Because microwave oven power settings may vary considerably, you will want to check your owner’s manual for appropriate turkey defrosting instructions and times.
Cook your turkey immediately after defrosting in the microwave.
Don’t refreeze a thawed turkey
Of course, a defrosted turkey should never be refrozen. Cooked turkey meat may be frozen, but not defrosted raw poultry.