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Thawing a Turkey in a Cooler: Is This Method Safe?

Thawing a turkey in a cooler might seem like an odd notion, but it’s one that’s worth exploring. The question is, does this method go against the rules of food safety? If not, what are the best ways to go about it?

Thawing a Turkey in a Cooler

If you want to thaw turkey in a cooler to save room in the fridge, it’s safest to fill the cooler with cold water as well. This is similar to the regular cold-water bath thawing method, but since the cooler is insulated, it will prolong the process.

Why It Matters

Before we get into the details, let’s cover a few basic food safety procedures.

When meat is frozen, it should keep indefinitely—at least in theory. Any meat that’s frozen for longer than a year or so will have a drier texture when you cook it. For smaller cuts and ground meat, this window shortens to just a few months.

As the meat begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have formed on the surface will start to multiply once more. Proper refrigeration halts this growth but can’t stop it entirely.

In order to remain safe while in its frozen state, meat needs to be kept at temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigerator temperatures, meanwhile, should be between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Danger Zone

The reason why fridge temps need to be set below 40 degrees is easy enough to explain. Food safety experts refer to the range between 40 and 140 degrees as “the danger zone.” Here’s why.

Within this temperature range, the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses are able to breed at a rapid pace. At lower temps, the bacteria grow more slowly; at higher temps, they’re no longer able to reproduce.

The longer meat stays in the danger zone, the more likely it is to harbor dangerous bacteria. Once enough of these bacteria have set up camp, reheating and refrigerating won’t be enough to destroy them.

Any meat that’s been left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours should be discarded. This rule applies to raw meat as well as leftovers.

Can You Thaw Turkey in a Cooler?

The prospect of thawing turkey in a cooler is an appealing one for several reasons.

First and foremost, whole turkeys are huge birds. There may not be enough room in your fridge to store it in there while you wait for it to thaw. This is true especially around the holidays, when most refrigerators are loaded with other ingredients.

Second, coolers are both inexpensive and easy to find. You probably already have one that’s big enough to hold your turkey comfortably, even with the lid closed.

Proponents of this method argue that frozen turkeys provide their own natural refrigeration as they thaw. The cooler is insulated, so it will hold the chill inside, keeping the meat out of the danger zone.

The Other Side

In the interest of full disclosure, we should point out that the USDA does not recommend thawing a turkey in a cooler. If you want to adhere to strict food safety guidelines, it’s better to use one of the other methods we’ve listed below.

According to the USDA, the only ways to safely defrost a turkey are in the fridge, in a cold-water bath, and in the microwave. We would go a step further and suggest that the microwave is an inferior method, even if it is considered safe.

The refrigerator will always be the preferred defrosting technique because the meat is guaranteed to remain at a safe temperature as it thaws. The only drawbacks are the space considerations we mentioned, and the fact that it takes advance preparation.

Plan on allowing one day for every 4 to 5 pounds of weight when thawing in the fridge. A 15-pound turkey might be fully defrosted in 3 days, but give it 4 days to be on the safe side.

Once thawed, the turkey should keep in the fridge for another 2 days.

If you want to use the cold-water method, you’ll need to do it the same day you plan to cook the turkey. It’s not safe to refrigerate the meat again (or worse yet, refreeze it) after it’s been thawed in this manner.

To thaw meat in a cold-water bath, leave the turkey in its original packaging. Fill a large container with cold water and fully submerge the turkey.

After 30 minutes, empty and replenish the supply of cold water. Repeat until the turkey has thawed. This should take 30 minutes per pound. That means a 15-pound turkey will be ready to cook in about 7.5 hours. Cook the turkey as soon as it’s fully thawed.

Thawing a Turkey in a Cooler: A Guide

To be fair, we should point out that it’s fine to use a cooler for the cold-water method as long as it’s sturdy enough. In this way, you can thaw the turkey in a cooler and still follow the USDA’s regulations.

One benefit of using a cooler instead of the sink or another container is that the cooler will provide insulation. You shouldn’t have to change the cold water every 30 minutes. In fact, with the right cooler, you might not have to change the water at all.

If you decide to try it, remember what we said about the danger zone. As long as the temperature inside the cooler stays below 40 degrees, the turkey should still be safe to eat when thawed.

Use a thermometer with a probe attachment to keep track of the cooler’s internal temperature. If it seems to be creeping toward 40, you may have no choice but to transfer your turkey to the refrigerator.

We’ve found that a Coleman Xtreme cooler does an admirable job with this method, functioning as a smaller second fridge. The 28-quart model should be sufficient for thawing birds that weigh up to 20 pounds. As a bonus, they’re also affordable.

Once you’ve thawed raw meat in a cooler, it’s better to reserve that cooler specifically for these purposes. While you can disinfect the interior, we prefer to err on the side of caution where raw meat is concerned, especially poultry.

Thawing a turkey in a cooler is simple. Keep the bird in its original wrapping and place it in the cooler. Then cover it with enough cold water to submerge the bird and close the lid.

In an Xtreme cooler, the meat should cool at a rate of 90 minutes per pound. That means you’ll have a window of nearly 24 hours to defrost a 15-pound turkey. This is ideal if you want to start defrosting the day before Thanksgiving.

In an inferior cooler, the meat may thaw at a rate of 30 minutes per pound. Keep an eye on it to ensure that it doesn’t hang around in the water bath too long. A thawed turkey feels soft and spongy, while a frozen one will still be hard to the touch.

Finally, don’t worry if the meat is still frozen or partially frozen when it’s time to start cooking. You can cook meat from a frozen state—it just takes about 50 percent longer than it would if the meat was thawed.

Final Thoughts

Thawing turkey in a cooler is similar to using a cold-water bath. A well-insulated cooler will prolong the process, giving you more time to tend to other matters. As long as the meat stays out of the danger zone, you shouldn’t run into any problems.

Happy grilling!