Since whole turkeys are so large, it can be difficult to predict how long they might take to thaw. Even when you do your best, there might still be patches of ice throughout—or worse, portions of the bird that are still frozen solid.
Assuming your bird didn’t have time to fully defrost, can you cook a partially frozen turkey? Let’s find out.
Can You Cook a Partially Frozen Turkey?
It’s safe to cook a partially frozen turkey as long as the meat doesn’t linger in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees for an extended amount of time. Since smoking meat from a frozen state can increase the cooking time by 50 percent, it might be quicker to thaw the turkey in a cold water bath.
Why It’s Important
For a long time, we thought it was dangerous to cook meat without thawing it first. While the practice can cause issues if it’s not done properly, the key is to ensure that the meat spends as little time as possible in the “danger zone.”
The danger zone is the span between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Within this window, the bacteria that cause food poisoning are able to thrive and multiply. That’s why you need to refrigerate leftovers within a 2-hour window.
It’s best if the meat cooks to a temperature beyond the danger zone within the same time frame. If you put it in the oven or smoker from a frozen state, it’s defrosting as it cooks, which could increase the amount of time it spends between 40 and 140 degrees.
For this reason, it’s always preferable to thaw the turkey at least partway before you attempt to cook it. Fortunately, it’s possible to do this even if you don’t have a lot of time to spare.
How To Safely Defrost Turkey
The safest way to defrost a turkey is to keep it in the refrigerator. That way, you can be sure that the meat remains at a temperature below 40 degrees as it thaws.
Although it can be tough to predict with accuracy, meat typically defrosts at a rate of 24 hours for every 5 pounds in the fridge. Use this as a guideline when making your plans.
For example, let’s say you want to smoke your turkey on a Saturday. If the turkey weighs 10 pounds, you should take it out of the freezer on Thursday morning. For 20-pound turkeys, start the defrosting process on the Tuesday before.
After defrosting, a turkey should keep in the fridge for 1 to 2 days. Don’t attempt to wait any longer without cooking or refreezing it, or the quality will start to deteriorate.
If you’ve waited too long and want to cook the turkey today, you can thaw it more quickly using a cold water bath. Find a container that’s large enough to hold the turkey comfortably, then fill it with cold water and submerge the wrapped bird inside.
After 30 minutes, swap out the cold water for a fresh batch so that it doesn’t warm up to room temperature. Repeat for about 30 minutes per pound—5 hours for a 10-pound turkey. At this point, the bird should be thawed enough to cook through in a reasonable time frame.
Be aware that when you defrost meat this way, you need to cook it promptly. It’s against food safety protocol to hold or refreeze the meat after it’s been thawed by any means other than the refrigerator.
Can You Defrost Turkey in the Microwave?
It’s considered acceptable to thaw a whole turkey in the microwave, assuming that your unit has a defrost setting. That said, we try to avoid it whenever possible.
It’s problematic to thaw large cuts like turkey in the microwave because the technique heats the meat unevenly. Some portions of the bird might be frozen solid while others have actually begun to cook.
A proper defrost setting can offset this danger, but it’s still preferable to use the fridge or a cold water bath. If you must use the microwave, be sure to rotate the bird after every 6 minutes and cook it off as soon as it’s fully defrosted.
Can You Defrost Turkey in a Cooler?
Using a cooler isn’t that different from enlisting a water bath, as long as you follow our advice and immerse the turkey in cold water. If you put the turkey in the cooler without adding water, it might stray into the danger zone for too long.
A regular cooler will thaw the turkey at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. If you purchase a specialty cooler for this very purpose, the bird might take up to 24 hours to thaw in the water bath.
Can You Defrost Turkey at Room Temperature?
No. Never attempt to thaw meat at room temperature. This will put it squarely within the danger zone, and the whole bird won’t have a chance to thaw within a couple of hours. Therefore, the meat will be unsafe to eat, even if you cook it afterwards.
Can You Cook a Partially Frozen Turkey?
If the bird is still frozen in the cavity—or in other patches—you can go ahead and start cooking it anyway. It might take a little bit longer to cook, but it’s fine to do so as long as the meat cooks to a safe temperature.
Cuts of meat that are still partially frozen may take 25 percent more time to cook. So if your estimated time for a thawed turkey was 4 hours, expect a partially frozen one to take about 5 hours.
When the meat is still completely frozen, you should add another 50 percent to the planned cooking time. With large cuts, this may pose a problem because they take so long to cook anyway. That’s why it’s better to defrost the bird at least partway first.
Can You Refreeze a Defrosted Turkey?
As long as you defrosted the turkey in the refrigerator, it’s safe to refreeze it without cooking it. Just pop it back in the freezer, even if it’s partly or mostly thawed.
When stored in the freezer, turkey should keep indefinitely. However, for optimum texture, try to defrost and cook it within a year.
Turkey that’s been thawed and refrozen might be a bit drier and chalkier than it would have been otherwise. To offset this, try smoking it at a lower temperature. 250 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit should work.
Can You Brine a Partially Frozen Turkey?
A turkey that’s still frozen solid won’t take well to a brine because the meat will be thawing in the water solution instead of soaking it in. If the meat is mostly thawed, however, you can go ahead and brine it as planned.
Pro Tip: Make sure the brine is very cold before you submerge the turkey. If necessary, add a few ice cubes to keep the mixture from warming up to room temperature.
How To Smoke Frozen Turkey Breast
When smoking turkey breast from a frozen state, try setting the smoker to 250 degrees. That way, the meat will have a chance to cook to a safe temp without drying out.
- 1 whole bone-in turkey breast (about 6 pounds)
For the Spice Rub:
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon rubbed sage
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Make the spice rub. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. If you have a mortar and pestle, use that to ensure that the spices are well blended.
2. Preheat the smoker to 250 degrees. Apple wood is a nice choice with this seasoning blend, but you can use whatever type of wood you prefer.
3. Season the turkey breast with the spice rub. You might need to apply a layer of cooking oil to help the spices adhere to the frozen meat.
4. When the smoker has reached the set temperature, place the prepared turkey on the cooking grate with the meatier side facing up.
5. Close the lid of the smoker and cook until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. This should take 5 to 6 hours if the turkey breast was still completely frozen when you put it on the smoker.
6. When the turkey is done, remove it from the heat and tent it loosely with foil. Let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving it into neat slices.
The Bottom Line
Bear in mind that it might be faster to defrost the turkey using the cold water method than to stick it on the smoker while it’s still frozen. It depends on how long the turkey has already thawed—or if it had a chance to thaw at all.
In general, we would suggest thawing the turkey in cold water for as long as time allows. If you’re smoking a turkey breast and not the whole bird, the meat could be defrosted within 3 hours.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!