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Experts Say You Should Never Thaw Your Frozen Turkey by Leaving It Out on the Counter

Prevention logo Prevention 2020-11-24 Korin Miller

Buying a turkey for Thanksgiving is just the first of many steps to putting that bird on the table. Perhaps the most challenging part? If you bought your turkey early or frozen, you have to figure out how to thaw the thing.

Thawing the turkey is a crucial part of the overall cooking process, because it needs to be done safely. Whenever you’re dealing with raw meat, you need to take certain precautions to avoid getting sick. Along with undercooking the bird, handling turkey incorrectly is one of the most common problems that leads to foodborne disease linked to poultry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You’re most at risk of contracting Salmonella Staphylococcus and Campylobacter Listeria, says Darin Detwiler, Ph.D., director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University. However, that’s not all. “Most raw poultry contains Campylobacter while some may contain E. coli, Yersinia enterocolitica, and other bacteria,” he explains.

The symptoms of contracting each pathogen can vary, but they can all cause vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea, Detwiler says. Yeah, not ideal after stuffing your stomach with your holiday favorites.

So, how do you thaw a raw turkey the right way? We asked food safety experts weigh in.

Is it safe to leave a frozen turkey out overnight?

Nope. Frozen turkeys should never be thawed on the counter, and should not be left out at room temperature for more than two hours, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

When turkey is left out at room temperature for more than two hours, its temperature becomes unsafe. Bacteria can grow quickly in the “danger zone,” which is between 40°F and 140°F, per the CDC.

Sure, some of that bacteria can cook off, Detwiler says—but not all of it. “The staph toxin is heat-resistant and will survive the heat of the oven,” he warns.

Is it safe to thaw a turkey at room temperature?

Technically you can thaw your turkey at room temperature for up to two hours, per the USDA. But the odds that a Thanksgiving-sized bird will fully defrost in that amount of time are slim to none, says Barbara Kowalcyk, Ph.D., director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention at The Ohio State University.

“Do not leave it on your counter. Do not do that,” Kowalcyk says. Not only is there the risk of bacterial growth, it’s just not an effective means of defrosting your bird. “The outside of the turkey will seem like it’s defrosted, but the inside will be frozen,” she says.

Is it safe to thaw a turkey in a cooler?

This one is debatable. “It depends on the temperature of the bird—you want it to stay cool,” says Eliot Ryser, Ph.D., a food safety expert and professor at Michigan State University. While you could go this route if you can continue to keep the turkey cold, “the refrigerator is better for defrosting,” Ryser says.

How to thaw a turkey safely and quickly

a slice of pizza sitting on top of a table: turkey at thanksgiving table © Thomas Barwick - Getty Images turkey at thanksgiving table

1. Put your frozen turkey in the fridge.

The USDA calls this the best method, since it allows for a slow, safe reduction in temperature. It can just take a while: You’ll need to allow about 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey. (So, if you’re reading this the day before Thanksgiving, you’re likely too late for this strategy!)

When trying this method, “you want to place the turkey in a pan to catch the juices, in case any spill out,” says Bruce Ruck, Pharm.D., managing director and director of drug information services and professional education at the New Jersey Poison Center. He also suggests placing the pan on the lowest shelf possible to avoid any potential spills getting onto your other food.

2. Put it in a cold bath.

If you’re looking for the speediest, safest way to defrost your turkey, the cold bath is really the way to go, Ryser says. Submerge your turkey in its original wrapping in cold water in your sink. You’ll want to allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound of turkey, and should change out the water every 30 minutes to keep it cool, Kowalcyk says.

3. Use the microwave.

If you go this route, check the manufacturer’s instructions since every microwave is slightly different, the CDC says. But while this is technically a recommended method of defrosting a turkey, Kowalcyk emphasizes that it’s not the most efficient. “You will likely get hot and cold spots,” she says.

How to handle raw turkey safely

The CDC has some pretty specific instructions for keeping yourself safe when you handle your raw bird.

  • Wash your hands in warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling the turkey.
  • Don’t wash the raw turkey. This can cause turkey juices to spread in the kitchen and contaminate other things.
  • Use a separate cutting board for raw turkey.
  • Never place cooked food or fresh produce on a plate, cutting board, or other surface that previously held raw turkey.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing turkey and before you prepare the next item.

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