For a long time, we thought it was a bad idea to put a turkey on the smoker if parts of it were still frozen solid. In this guide, we’ll explain why a turkey still frozen in cavity—or elsewhere—is still safe to cook.
Turkey Still Frozen in Cavity
You can cook a turkey that’s still frozen in the cavity without worrying. Cooking meat from a frozen or partially defrosted state might take a bit longer, but as long as the turkey doesn’t stay in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than 2 hours, it should still be safe to consume.
Why It Matters
You can cook most cuts of meat from a frozen state. You’ll need to add about 50 percent to your estimated cooking time to ensure that the meat reaches a safe temperature, but as long as it cooks in a reasonable amount of time, it should be fine.
When it comes to larger cuts like turkey, though, it’s better if the meat is at least partially defrosted when it’s time to cook it. Here’s why.
At temperatures below 40 degrees, the growth of dangerous bacteria slows down to a reasonable pace. That’s why it’s safe to keep meat in the refrigerator for several days before you cook it.
Temperatures higher than 140 degrees will kill off bacteria, and the higher the temperature gets, the less time it takes to destroy them. Once you’ve cooked off the meat, it should keep for another few days before it starts to show signs of spoilage.
When the meat is kept in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than a couple of hours, these bacteria can multiply rapidly. Leaving meat at room temperature is a hazardous practice for this reason.
When you attempt to cook a whole turkey from a frozen state, it will be defrosting as it cooks. This takes a long time, especially with larger birds. This prolongs the amount of time that the meat might spend in the danger zone.
Once the bacteria have contaminated the meat, cooking it to a safe temperature won’t work. Certain types of bacteria leave behind toxins that can’t be destroyed by heat.
That doesn’t mean you can’t cook a turkey that still has a few patches of ice here and there. It’s preferable, however, to defrost the meat at least partially before putting it on the smoker.
Mistakes To Avoid
Before we talk about how to handle a turkey still frozen in cavity, let’s go over what you shouldn’t do when you need to defrost the turkey in a hurry.
If your turkey is still partially frozen, don’t leave it out on the counter to thaw. This will bring it into the danger zone for a prolonged amount of time.
Similarly, you might think that submerging the bird in hot water will melt the ice quickly. While that’s true, it will also contaminate your bird. Never attempt to thaw a piece of meat using hot water.
Essentially, you want the turkey to remain at a temperature below 40 degrees while you wait for it to thaw. If you’re in a hurry, there are safer ways to go about it.
What To Do With a Partially Defrosted Turkey
Planning ahead is your best course of action. When thawed on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, a turkey should thaw at a rate of 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. That means a 20-pound bird should be fully defrosted in 4 to 5 days.
Once the turkey is thawed, you have 1 to 2 days to cook it before it starts to go downhill in terms of quality. If your plans change, go ahead and put it back in the freezer. Doing so won’t harm the turkey, but it might dry out the meat a bit.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s say you’ve done everything by the books and your turkey is still frozen in the cavity. Don’t panic. You still have options.
If you have a few hours to go before you have to start cooking, try submerging the turkey in a cold water bath. Wrap the bird in a double layer of plastic wrap, or use a zip-top bag if you have one large enough. Fill the sink or a large container with cold water.
Submerge the turkey in the water bath for 30 minutes. If it’s still frozen at this point, swap out the water for a fresh batch. Repeat every 30 minutes as needed until the meat is fully defrosted.
Pro Tip: If the container isn’t large enough to hold the whole turkey, make sure to submerge the part that’s still frozen. If the whole bird still needs defrosting, try flipping it over every 15 minutes or so.
When you’ve run out of time and need to start cooking the bird right away, go ahead and fire up the smoker. As we mentioned, it can be problematic to do this with very large birds, but if yours weighs under 20 pounds, it shouldn’t be a problem.
For partially frozen birds, tack an extra 25 percent on to the estimated cooking time. If you expected the turkey to be ready in 4 hours, it will probably need around 5.
Birds that are still completely frozen will need even longer to defrost and cook on the smoker. Add 50 percent to your planned cooking time. By this formula, that 4-hour smoke will extend to 6 hours.
Turkey Still Frozen in Cavity
More often than not, when we go to pull the giblets and neck out of our defrosted turkey, we encounter a bit of ice. Fortunately, this isn’t a serious issue.
Try running the turkey under cold water to melt some of the ice. Ordinarily, we don’t recommend this because it can spread bacteria around the kitchen. In this case, though, it can help to dislodge the neck and giblets. Just be sure to sanitize the sink afterwards.
As long as you can dislodge the giblets and neck from the cavity, you should be able to cook the bird as planned. It might take a little bit longer to cook, but it’s usually not a significant difference.
On the other hand, if it’s impossible to remove these parts without tearing the bag, you might have to put the bird on the smoker first. After two hours, check to see if the cavity is thawed enough to allow you to remove them.
Be aware that if the giblets are in a plastic bag, it’s imperative to take the bag out before it has a chance to melt. If the plastic melts even a little, you’ll have to discard the turkey.
Can You Brine A Partially Frozen Turkey?
If the turkey is still completely frozen when you put it on the smoker, brining is not an option. Your goal is to cook the bird to a safe temperature in a reasonable amount of time.
Partially defrosted turkeys, meanwhile, can handle a brine solution. Just follow the instructions and brine the turkey as you normally would. The extra time in the cold water will help it finish thawing.
The Bottom Line
As long as the turkey doesn’t spend more than 2 hours in the danger zone, it’s safe to cook it when it’s partially frozen—or even completely frozen. Your best bet is to keep a close eye on the internal temperature of the meat as it cooks.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!