Chow Line: Is your turkey thawing yet?

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We are hosting Thanksgiving this year, and I’ve been worried about having enough space in the refrigerator to thaw the turkey. My husband suggested thawing it in our attached garage. Good idea or bad idea?

Bad idea. Take the time to clean out the refrigerator.

Even if you shiver when you step into the garage, you simply don’t have complete control over the temperature in that space. And temperature control is what it’s all about when it comes to thawing the turkey safely. You need to keep the bird below 40 degrees, and you can’t guarantee that outside of a refrigerator.

Thawing the turkey in the refrigerator is the simplest method. All you do is take the turkey, still completely wrapped, and put it in a big pan to catch any juices that might leak out during the thawing process.And, just in case, place the turkey on the bottom shelf so any stray juices don’t drip onto other foods.

Keep the bird refrigerated long enough to thaw. U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines are:

  • One to three days for 4- to 12-pound turkeys.
  • Three to four days for 12- to 16-pound turkeys.
  • Four to five days for 16- to 20-pound turkeys.
  • Five to six days for 20- to 24-pound turkeys.

Luckily, a thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for an additional one to two days before you put it in the oven, so place it in the refrigerator earlier rather than later to be sure it’s completely thawed.

Another way to safely thaw a turkey is to place it in cold water. But this method is more complex than it sounds: You have to be sure the turkey is completely submerged, and you have to replace the cold water every 30 minutes to be sure the water stays below 70 degrees F. It can take up to 12 hours to thaw a turkey using the cold water method, depending on the size of the turkey. That’s a long time to fill and drain (and fill and drain) a container with cold water.

You might think that thawing a turkey properly isn’t as important as cooking it thoroughly: After all, thorough cooking kills bacteria, right?

That’s true, but there’s a major flaw in that argument: Some foodborne pathogens produce toxins that remain in the food even after bacteria are destroyed. You simply don’t want to take the chance.

For more information on keeping your Thanksgiving dinner a safe one, check out Turkey Tips from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service at

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Linnette Goard, field specialist in Food Safety, Selection and Management for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Linnette Goard
OSU Extension, Food Safety, Selection and Management