It's hard to deny that Thanksgiving turkey is a huge deal 🦃 In 2019, 46 million turkeys were expected to be served during the holiday dinner. That's about as many turkeys as there are people in Spain! Thanksgiving is especially important today, in the times of quarantine. A nice, cozy evening spent enjoying a home-cooked meal with your closest loved ones is perfectly in line with the current restrictions, and we’d like to help you make it go perfectly!
In an attempt to organize a perfect Thanksgiving dinner, many people want to be prepared in advance and choose to get a frozen turkey. While generally that's a great idea, there is one catch - defrosting a whole turkey can get a little tricky, and doing it wrong can lead to unpleasant and potentially dangerous consequences. According to the Federal government's estimations, as many as 1 in 6 Americans suffer from food poisoning yearly. While most food poisonings are harmless in the long run, a significant number of these cases end in hospitalization or even death.
One of the most common causes of food poisoning stems from incorrect defrosting. That's why we decided to create this Turkey Thawing Calculator! We want your Thanksgiving to be as perfect and trouble-free as it can be, so let us help you make sure that you prepare your frozen turkey safely. Our calculator combines the standard rules of thumb regarding turkey thawing with reliable scientific knowledge. It gives you an estimation of the time it will take for your turkey to defrost, using the two safest, most recommended methods. Read on if you want to find out more about the physics behind our tool, and learn about the do's and don'ts of Thanksgiving dinner preparations!
How to safely thaw a turkey? - The science behind this tool
If you've ever researched safe turkey thawing methods, you've probably noticed a particular rule of thumb re-appear in nearly every source available on the subject.
It is true that the two safest thawing methods are cold water and fridge. The popular time estimations (30 min/lbs for cold water and 1 day/4 lbs for fridge) you can usually find are acceptable for getting your Thanksgiving ready, but have you ever wondered why they actually works?
In our thawing model, we use a scientific approach, which is based on the use of heat transfer equations. Since these types of problems are, in general, very complicated, we use some approximations, which allow us to estimate the thawing time with reasonable accuracy. As a result, you can see how the average temperature of the turkey changes in time.
We assume that you pull the turkey out of the freezer at -4 °F (-20 °C) and thaw it in the fridge or cold water of temperature around 39 °F (4 °C), that are typical temperatures in your kitchen devices. We can distinguish three main phases during thawing:
- warming the fully frozen state;
- melting, which happens in a narrow temperature range; and
- warming the thawed turkey.
From a physical point of view, fast thawing (e.g., in hot water) could be dangerous because the turkey thaws unevenly - while the surface is already fully thawed, the inner parts are still rock frozen. High temperatures enable some bacterias to grow rapidly and produce toxic substances that won't decompose during the cooking and may cause food poisoning.
How to use this turkey thawing calculator?
Now that we've roughly covered how the calculator works, let's do a short crash course on how to use it!
To get your thawing time estimated, we ask you to follow these simple instructions:
- Start by choosing the thawing method 🧊
Notice how some drop-down menu options have a ✔️ checkmark, and others a ❌ cross. Curious about what they mean? Click through them in the calculator, and/or read on the next parts of the text.
- Input the size of your turkey 🦃
- Pick what estimation you'd like to make - do you want to find out when to start thawing, or when it will be ready if you start at a specific time?
And voila! At the bottom of the calculator, you will see an estimation of how long it will take to thaw your turkey, complete with graphs and illustrations for more clarity.
Also, don't forget that thawing is only a part of the preparations. Remember to take the cooking time into account when planning your work!
What else do you need to know when defrosting your turkey?
We've covered the science behind the process of turkey thawing, but that doesn't mean we know all there is know! Safe defrosting is no easy feat, and you might want to keep some of these additional tips in mind to make the whole process go easy and stress-free.
- Keep the turkey in its original wrapping, and, on top of that, cover it with a leak-proof bag! The last thing we want is for the water from the sink to get into the meat and make it all soggy and unpleasant.
- It's a good idea to keep the turkey fully submerged to ensure even defrosting. You might need to apply some external force for it to happen. For example, consider weighing the meat down with a few cans or a plate.
- While we're on the subject of even thawing - remember to move the turkey around slightly whenever you change the water.
- If you thawed your turkey in cold water, you should move it to the oven as soon as the defrosting is over.
- Last but not least - or, in fact, most importantly! - remember to change the water every 30 minutes! That's the tricky part of cold water defrosting it has to stay cold at all times. When the temperature crosses a certain threshold, dangerous bacteria might start multiplying, increasing the risk of causing food poisoning. Provided that the water you submerge the turkey in is ice cold, changing it every 30 minutes should be enough to keep it from going lukewarm.
- Keep the turkey in its wrapping. That will prevent it from exchanging scents with whatever else is in your fridge!
- It's a good idea to keep the meat in a dish that's not entirely flat. The turkey is bound to release some juices and water, and you want to make sure they won't touch anything else in the fridge. Plus, on top of preventing contamination, this will save you a whole lot of time you'd otherwise spend on cleaning the appliance.
- If you're planning on brining the turkey, you can safely start doing so while it's still partially frozen in your fridge! The longer the meat spends in brine, the more flavorful it will get, so go ahead and brine away!
- Fridge thawing is a good idea if you want to have your turkey ready a few days in advance. When defrosted this way, it can safely stay in the refrigerator for up to two full days before cooking!
What to avoid while thawing turkey?
The methods we propose might be a little discouraging. We get it. Fridge thawing might feel like ages, and cold water forces you to stick around to change it frequently. You might be thinking to yourself, "Why the bother? Can't I just put the turkey on the counter and leave it be?"
Unfortunately, the answer is a firm no.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, room temperature is the "Danger Zone" for thawing meat, putting it at risk of becoming contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The USDA firmly advises against:
- counter thawing; and
- warm water thawing.
The reason for this is that even though the inner part of the meat is still frozen, when the outer layer is exposed to warmth, it gives bacteria a window to multiply before the whole thing is thawed. According to the USDA, any temperature higher than 40 °F (4 °C) - what they characterize as room temperature - is dangerous for meat thawing. If you let the meat defrost in such conditions, you might end up turning it into literal poison.
While the USDA only directly advises against counter and warm water thawing, please be advised that this applies to any other quick-fix methods that include putting the frozen meat in warm temperature. So, in addition to the USDA's recommendations, you should never, ever resort to:
- Trying to speed up the thawing process with hairdryers or external heaters;
- Thawing the turkey in a dryer (remember that episode of New Girl? It didn't work for them, and it won't work for you);
- Thawing turkey in a dishwasher; and
- Using any other appliances you might think of that are not explicitly designed to defrost frozen food safely.
We also advise against putting the turkey on your head, no matter how fun it looks 😉
Running late? Not all hope is lost!
"Wait, what do you mean Thanksgiving is tomorrow?! How on Earth will I get my turkey ready in time?!"
Don't worry! While cold water and fridge thawing are the two recommended methods, there's a way to save face when you're running short on time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends microwave thawing as a perfectly safe way to defrost your Thanksgiving turkey! While, due to the unique nature of different microwave models, we cannot give you one golden equation for microwave thawing, there are a few rules of thumb that you should follow to make sure your microwave does a perfect job of defrosting the turkey:
- Remember to start with thoroughly reading through your microwave's owner's manual. In there, you should find crucial information such as the maximum size that will fit, the power levels you ought to use, and the minutes per pound the thawing process should take.
- Contrary to the previous options, when using a microwave, you should remove all outside wrapping.
- Use a microwave-safe dish that's not flat. That way, you'll avoid juices dripping all over the microwave.
- It may happen that the turkey starts to actually cook rather than thaw in some places. Don't worry - in that case, just let it rest for about 5 minutes and then resume defrosting. It's a good idea to cover the tips and wings with a foil to prevent them from cooking when the rest of the meat is still partially frozen.
- Once the turkey is defrosted in a microwave, you should cook it immediately!
You might be wondering if all hope is lost if, say, your microwave is too small for your turkey. Luckily, no! If you're really out of other options, it's safe to cook a turkey that's still partially frozen.
And if you're really pressed for time and out other options? Don't forget that ** you can always buy a fresh turkey** 🦃😉