Is it safe to refreeze meat without cooking it first? We used to think the answer was no. As it turns out, the practice isn’t inherently dangerous—but there are a few safety practices that you should be aware of. Here’s our ultimate guide to refreezing turkey.
Can You Refreeze a Thawed Turkey?
Yes, you can refreeze a turkey that’s fully or partially thawed—as long as you defrosted it in the refrigerator. You should also refreeze it no more than 2 days after defrosting is complete, and be sure not to leave the turkey out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
How To Defrost Turkey
Before you can worry about refreezing, you’ll need to defrost the turkey. In this section, we’ll fill you in on how to do it correctly.
In The Refrigerator
This is the safest method for defrosting because the turkey will stay at a safe temperature for the duration of the thaw. It might take longer than the others, but it’s a hands-off technique. As long as you plan ahead, the refrigerator is your best bet.
Be aware that this is also the only method you can use that allows you to refreeze the meat afterward. If you use any of the other techniques described below, you’ll need to cook off the turkey as soon as it’s thawed.
As soon as you pull the turkey out of the freezer, transfer it to a platter or roasting pan that’s large enough to hold the entire bird. It’s important for this container to have rimmed edges to catch any juices that will escape from the packaging.
Set the pan on the bottom shelf of the fridge and push it toward the back. This will protect it from the gusts of warm air that enter the fridge every time you open the door.
A whole turkey should thaw at a rate of 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of weight. We recommend buying 10- to 12-pound turkeys for the smoker whenever possible. That means you’re looking at 2 or 3 days of thawing—perhaps more if the bird is any larger.
In Cold Water
If the turkey is still completely frozen on the day you plan to cook it, all is not lost. You can use a cold water bath—as long as you start cooking it as soon as it’s defrosted. It’s not safe to refreeze or refrigerate turkey that’s been thawed in cold water.
If your sink is large enough to hold the turkey, fill it with enough cold water to submerge the bird. Otherwise, use a separate container.
Don’t be tempted to use warm or hot water to speed the process along. This will put the meat squarely inside the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees. When turkey is kept within this zone for more than a couple of hours, it’s no longer safe to consume.
Place the wrapped turkey in the cold water. If it doesn’t submerge completely, you’ll need to rotate it every 15 minutes or so. Also, you should dump out the cold water and replenish it every 30 minutes to make sure it doesn’t warm up too much.
Turkeys that are thawed in cold water will take about 30 minutes per pound to defrost. That means a 12-pound turkey can be ready for the smoker in 6 hours.
Remember that if the turkey is still frozen in the cavity, you can still start to cook it as planned. Partially frozen meat will take about 25 percent longer to cook, but it won’t do any harm as long as the bird cooks to a safe temperature.
Similarly, you can brine the meat if it’s still frozen in some spots. A turkey that’s frozen solid won’t be able to absorb the salt solution, but as long as the flesh is soft and pliant in most places, you can finish defrosting it in the brine.
In a Cooler
Don’t attempt to thaw a turkey in a cooler without filling the container with cold water first. In essence, this technique mimics the cold water method. The only difference is that the process may take longer, depending on the insulating properties of the cooler.
In a regular cooler, the turkey should thaw at roughly the same rate that it would if you’d left the water bath at room temp. However, the cooler will keep the water from heating up, so you won’t have to replenish it as often.
There are some high-tech coolers available that will slow the process even more. In a well-insulated unit, even a 10-pound bird could take a day or more to thaw. Those of you who want to use this technique on a regular basis should seek out one of these units.
One more tip: When you’ve used a cooler to thaw raw meat, it’s not a good idea to use it again for any other purpose. At the very least, you should disinfect the interior before putting the cooler back in storage.
In The Microwave
We would only use the microwave as a last resort when thawing a whole turkey. In fact, we prefer not to thaw meat in a microwave at all, but it’s especially difficult to do it with large cuts like this.
When you attempt to thaw a turkey in the microwave, patches of it will start to cook through while others remain frozen. This is problematic in terms of food safety, but it will also affect the texture once the turkey is cooked.
If you have no recourse but to defrost the bird in the microwave, make sure your unit has a defrost setting. Use this setting to thaw the meat in 6-minute intervals, inspecting and rotating the turkey after each round.
Again, you’ll need to make sure to start cooking as soon as the turkey is thawed. The good news is that if you’ve fallen back on the microwave as a defrosting method, you’re probably in a hurry to get started as it is.
Can You Refreeze a Partially Thawed Turkey?
Absolutely. As long as the turkey was defrosted in the refrigerator, you can refreeze it even if the process was nearly complete.
Refreezing the turkey can affect the texture, as the process dries out the meat. It’s best to pop it back in the freezer as soon as you know you won’t have a chance to cook it as planned.
As a general rule, turkeys will keep in the fridge for 1 to 2 days after thawing. That means it’s often better to refreeze the meat when your plans change, instead of waiting it out and hoping the meat won’t spoil.
Can You Refreeze a Thawed Turkey?
It’s permissible to refreeze a fully thawed turkey as long as you used the refrigerator method. Again, the meat might lose a degree of moisture from the refreezing process, but it will still be safe to eat.
Be sure to refreeze the turkey no more than 2 days after it’s had a chance to defrost. If you wait any longer, it may start to show signs of spoilage. This will also shorten the amount of time you’ll have to store it in the fridge when you thaw it a second time.
Also, don’t forget that you should never refreeze or consume turkey that’s been left at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Bacteria can multiply rapidly at these temperatures.
To prevent freezer burn, keep the turkey in its original packaging, but reinforce the wrapping with a layer of plastic wrap or heavy-duty aluminum foil. Your goal is to protect the meat from coming into direct contact with the freezing air.
How Long Can You Store Turkey In The Freezer?
You can store a whole turkey in the freezer for up to a year. If you’ve thawed and refrozen it at any point, try to defrost and cook it within that same time frame.
For example, let’s say you bought the frozen turkey in December and defrosted it for a June cookout. Your plans changed, so you put the thawed bird back in the freezer. It’s still a good idea to defrost and cook it before December rolls around again.
In theory, meat will keep indefinitely when stored at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. You don’t have to worry about spoilage if your freezer is kept at the proper temperature. However, longer freezer storage will affect the texture of the turkey once it’s cooked.
The Bottom Line
As long as you’ve followed the correct procedures for defrosting and handling the turkey, it’s fine to put it back in the freezer after the meat is thawed.
The important thing to remember is that this practice is only safe when you defrost the turkey in the refrigerator. That’s why it’s best to plan ahead. As a bonus, you’ll have more flexibility in terms of time, as the meat can keep for a few days in the fridge.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!