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How to prepare and thaw a whole turkey

Nothing beats the taste of farm-to-table turkey. When you buy a frozen turkey you can avoid the last-minute run to the grocery store when you’re preparing to host friends and family. Freezing preserves a turkey’s freshness and delays spoilage. However, before stuffing your frozen turkey and cooking it, you have to prepare and thaw it. If you’ve never worked with a frozen turkey, here’s everything to know about how to prepare a turkey without compromising kitchen safety or messing up your oven or outdoor grill.

Use this calculator to determine how much turkey you’ll need.


Prepare Your Turkey for Roasting

How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey

You want to thaw your turkey without causing cross-contamination in your kitchen, so here are your best options:


Our recommended method is refrigerator thawing. However, you’ll have to plan ahead because your turkey won’t be ready for cooking same-day. That’s because it takes approximately 24 hours to thaw four to five pounds of frozen meat, meaning you will need about three days to thaw a 10 to 15-pound bird fully.

Follow these steps to thaw your turkey in the fridge safely:

  1. Set your fridge to 40°F. Doing this will ensure that your turkey stays safe from harmful bacteria.
  2. Leave the turkey in its original wrapping and place it in a baking pan with the breast facing upwards. The pan will catch drippings and prevent a mess as the turkey thaws in the fridge.
  3. Place the pan in the fridge and check on the turkey in 48 hours.

After the turkey has thawed, you can leave it in the fridge for up to two days. However, note that refreezing a turkey after refrigerator thawing may lead to some loss of quality.

Refrigerator Thawing Times
4 to 12 pounds – 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds – 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds – 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds – 5 to 6 days


Cold water thawing is the ideal solution if you need to thaw and cook your turkey on the same day. It can completely thaw a 15-pound turkey within seven to eight hours. That means if you intend on cooking the turkey for dinner, you may need to start cold water thawing as early as the night before but no later than the morning of the cook.

Below are the cold water thawing steps:

  1. Leave the turkey in its original packaging, then place it in a leak-proof plastic bag. Remove excess air from the leak-proof bag and seal it with the turkey inside. Doing so will help prevent the turkey from absorbing water.
  2. Fill a large container with regular tap water and put the bagged turkey in it. You must fully submerge the turkey in the water.
  3. Change the water at least every 30 minutes until the turkey has completely thawed. Changing the water speeds up the thawing process by keeping the turkey in water that’s a higher temperature.
  4. You can season and cook the turkey immediately after the thawing is complete. If you are not ready to use the meat after it has thawed, put it in a baking pan and store it in a fridge set at 40°F or lower.

Cold Water Thawing Times
4 to 12 pounds – 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds – 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds – 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds – 10 to 12 hours

Do not use hot or warm water to thaw your turkey. Raising the surface of the turkey to above 40 degrees Fahrenheit can trigger bacteria growth as the bird thaws within the bag.

How to Prepare a Whole Turkey

After thawing your whole turkey, you only have to prepare and cook it. Here’s how to prepare turkey for the oven:

  1. Gather your ingredients – salt, onions, black pepper, orange slices, melted butter, and aromatic herbs (rosemary, bay leaves, thyme, and so on).
  2. Remove the neck and giblets from inside the turkey cavity and pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
  3. Stuff the turkey with your orange slices, herbs, and other aromatics.
  4. Brush the body with the melted butter, then generously season with black pepper and kosher salt.
  5. Tuck the legs and wings so that the turkey cooks evenly.
  6. Place the turkey in a pan and wash your hands.
  7. Let the turkey sit in the fridge for two to three hours to absorb the seasonings.
  8. If you don’t have two to three hours to spare, you can immediately put the turkey in the oven to cook after prepping it.

For the juiciest and tastiest meat, go the extra mile by brining the turkey before cooking.

Explore Our Whole Turkey Recipes

Are you looking for a turkey recipe that will wow your guests? Check out these delectable grilled turkey recipes.

Grilled Turkey with Lemon-Herb Sauce
This delicious turkey recipe has a savory flavor and citrusy aroma that’ll leave your guests drooling. The lemon-herb sauce brightens the dish and makes the turkey extra moist. You only need 20 minutes to prep the turkey, and you’ll have enough to serve 10 to 12 hungry guests.

Spicy Grilled Turkey
Are you planning a barbecue? Serve your guests this spicy and juicy turkey. The recipe is simple, and you probably already have all the ingredients at home.

Turkey Prep FAQs

If you want to serve turkey to eight people, get a 12 to 14-pound bird. That way, you can serve each guest around a minimum of 1 lb. each and perhaps have some leftover turkey for sandwiches and other yummy turkey-based delicacies.

Are you planning a big dinner? Use the calculator at the top of this page to determine how much turkey you’ll need.

If your turkey package looks inflated, that means it is airtight, which is important for preventing cross-contamination and keeping the turkey fresh.

Hock locks are heat-resistant nylon or silicone clamp around the turkey’s legs and oven safe up to 500°F. That means you can roast a bird with the hock lock on as long as the oven or grill isn’t over 500°F. However, never deep fry a turkey without first removing the hock lock.

You can slide hock locks off turkey legs with kitchen shears.

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