Can You Leave a Turkey Out to Thaw Overnight?

Here's everything you need to know about how not to thaw your bird before Thanksgiving.

The more you can prep before Thanksgiving, the better. I don’t know what Thanksgiving morning looks like in other households, but in mine it’s hectic; potatoes being mashed in the slow cooker, intermittent phone calls from relatives, pumpkin pies covering the counter and roasted vegetables waiting for a turn in the oven.

And the turkey, often weighing in at 20 lbs. for my many family members—you better hope it’s thawed.

Can You Leave a Turkey Out to Thaw Overnight?

You shouldn’t. This might be surprising since many of us have defrosted frozen chicken on the counter at least once, but the answer is a hard “no” when it comes to a full turkey. And in terms of the chicken, you’re really not supposed to thaw it out on the counter anyway.

Frozen meat thaws from the outside-in. Left to defrost on the counter, the exterior of a turkey will thaw faster than the frozen center, putting areas that reach the USDA “danger zone” temperature (anywhere between 40° and 140°F) at risk for bacteria development.

The two-hour mark is where things start to get pretty dicey. Remember, we’re talking about a 20-lb. turkey, which, if left out, will take hours to thaw completely. If you thaw raw meat at room temperature for two hours or more, it will be subject to rapid bacteria growth.

Is thawing a turkey at room temperature a good idea? Nope. If you’ve done it and gotten away with it, you’re lucky. But it’s not the method we’d recommend.

The Right Way to Thaw a Turkey

The best way to thaw your frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. It’s not the quickest method out there, but it is the safest. Plan ahead to let the bird thaw at a consistent temperature under 40° over a few days.

You can also thaw a frozen turkey in water, but keep in mind that the cold water will need to be changed every 30 minutes to maintain a consistently chilled, safe temperature.

Now that you know the right way to thaw a Thanksgiving turkey, you can shift your attention to the many sides you’ll be serving. Here are Thanksgiving cooking tips that will keep things running smoothly!

Every Way to Roast a Turkey for Thanksgiving
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Hannah Twietmeyer
Hannah is a writer and content creator based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a passion for all things food, health, community and lifestyle. She is a journalism graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a previous dining and drink contributor for Madison Magazine.