It takes a long time for a whole turkey to defrost, even if you plan ahead. And if it’s still frozen in a few places, that can extend your cooking time. Here’s how to tell if a turkey is thawed before you put it on the smoker.
How To Tell if a Turkey is Thawed
When a turkey is fully thawed, the flesh will yield to slight pressure. The legs and wings will wiggle around when you attempt to move them, and the internal temperature of the meat should be around 32 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
How To Defrost a Turkey
To safely defrost a turkey in a timely fashion, remove it from the freezer several days before you plan to start cooking. Then store it in the refrigerator, undisturbed, until the meat is thawed.
When kept in a refrigerator at temperatures below 40 degrees, the turkey should thaw at a rate of 24 hours for every 5 pounds of meat. Therefore, if your turkey weighs in at 15 pounds, it should be fully defrosted in 3 days.
Once the meat is thawed, you have 1 or 2 days to cook it before its quality starts to deteriorate. If you aren’t going to be able to cook the turkey after all, put it back in the freezer. This won’t do any harm, but the meat might lose some moisture as a result.
Another option, if you’re short on time, is to defrost the turkey using a cold water bath. Bear in mind that when you use this method, you’ll need to start cooking it right away—refrigeration and refreezing are no longer an option.
This is a simple technique. Just fill a container (or the sink) with enough cold water to fully submerge the turkey. Make sure the turkey is still wrapped in its original packaging, then add it to the cold water.
After 30 minutes, empty the container and refill it with more cold water to ensure that the solution doesn’t come to room temperature. The turkey should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound, which translates to around 6 hours for a 12-pound bird.
The first rule of defrosting is to never leave the meat out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. At these temperatures, the turkey will become a breeding ground for the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning.
If you don’t have several days to spare, use the cold water bath technique. This is especially effective with smaller birds. A 10-pound turkey can be ready for the smoker within 5 hours when you use this method.
You can speed things along even further by defrosting smaller turkeys in the microwave, but we don’t recommend this unless your unit has a reliable defrost setting. We’ve found that thawing in the microwave can cause the bird to cook through in spots.
If you do decide to try it, use the defrost setting for no more than 6 minutes at a time. Rotate the turkey after every 6-minute interval to ensure that it thaws evenly. As with the cold water method, you’ll need to cook the bird immediately afterward.
Thawing the turkey in a cooler is another option. In fact, it’s a somewhat slower version of the cold water method. The turkey remains at a safe temperature as it thaws, thanks to the insulative properties of the cooler.
However, bear in mind that you should never thaw turkey in a cooler unless the unit is filled with cold water. Otherwise, it won’t stay cold enough to safely defrost the turkey.
One final note: Don’t be tempted to speed the defrosting process by submerging the turkey in warm or hot water. That will bring the surface of the turkey into the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees while the rest of the bird is still frozen solid.
How To Tell if a Turkey is Thawed: A Guide
It’s easy to tell when a turkey is frozen solid. The entire bird will feel more like a boulder in your grip—heavy and unyielding, with skin that’s firm to the touch.
If you aren’t sure whether the meat is thawed, use your probe thermometer to test its temperature. A defrosted turkey should yield a temperature readout between 32 and 39 degrees—the same temperature as your refrigerator, in other words.
Make sure to wash your meat thermometer after inserting it into a raw piece of poultry. The bacteria that cause food poisoning will still linger on the instrument after you remove it from the flesh.
Note that the cavity of the turkey may still have some icy patches. There may even be a chunk of ice or two inside the bird. If this is the case, don’t panic. Running the turkey under cold water will usually resolve the issue.
Be aware that if you do run the raw turkey under cold water, you’ll need to disinfect your sink afterward. This practice can cause bacteria to spread around the area. For good measure, disinfect the countertop around the sink as well.
Can You Cook a Partially Frozen Turkey?
Learning how to tell if a turkey is still frozen is a useful endeavor. However, even if the turkey is still partially frozen, it’s safe to start cooking it as you normally would.
In theory, you can cook all cuts of meat from a frozen state. The heat from the oven—or the smoker—will do the thawing for you.
The problem with cooking large cuts when they’re still completely frozen is that the meat’s temperature may not have time to clear the danger zone within a few hours. That’s why we recommend thawing the bird in a cold water bath when pressed for time.
When a whole turkey is partially frozen, expect to tack an extra 25 percent onto the estimated cooking time. If your 12-pound turkey usually takes 4 hours to cook, it may take up to 5 hours when it’s still frozen in patches.
Meat that’s still frozen solid can take up to 50 percent longer to cook. Therefore, an estimated 4-hour cooking time will increase to 8 hours.
As you can tell, cooking large turkeys from a frozen state won’t end up saving you that much time. It’s better to defrost them in cold water for a few hours first, or use the microwave as a last resort.
Can You Brine a Partially Frozen Turkey?
Brining the turkey will allow the meat’s fibers to retain more moisture during the cooking process. That means your turkey will be rich and juicy as well as flavorful.
Putting a frozen turkey in brine won’t work because the salt water will be thawing the meat instead of penetrating the surface. However, if the bird is partially frozen, the solution should have time to do its work.
Use 1 cup of coarse salt for every gallon of water, and make sure you have enough to submerge the turkey in the brine. If you’d like, you can add aromatic vegetables and herbs to the brine to improve the flavor.
Pro Tip: Remove the turkey from the brine about 1 hour before you plan to cook it, and make sure the skin is dry when you add the bird to the smoker.
The Bottom Line
A thawed raw turkey will have a softer texture than a frozen one. You should be able to tell if the bird is ready for the smoker as soon as you take it out of the fridge. For best results, pull the turkey from the freezer several days before you want to cook it.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!