Here is the most practical way to quickly thaw a turkey safely. This method will shave days off of your prep time.
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Turkey should be part of grilling season
When grilling season rolls around, everyone is itching to get out the grill to make large pieces of meat like brisket and pork shoulder, but rarely do they run to the grocery to pick up a whole turkey. Those are usually reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That’s partly because during the summer months, it’s really challenging to find a fresh, thawed turkey. And thawing a turkey safely can take several days, unless you follow this method.
The slow way to thaw a turkey
Before we get to the fast method, the standard, yet slow way, to thaw a turkey is to set it in the fridge, until it’s no longer frozen. As I mentioned, this process can take several days.
According to the USDA, when thawing a turkey in the fridge, you should plan on 1 day for every 4-5 pounds the turkey weighs (or 1 hour for every 3 ounces), which means a 20-pound turkey will take 5 days to thaw. I’m going to show you how to reduce that thaw time significantly.
If you decide to thaw your turkey the slow way in the fridge, be sure to set it in a pan with a rimmed edge to collect liquid that will leak from the packaging.
When smoking for the weekend, go with an 18-20-pound turkey, so you can create multiple meals throughout the week.
Be sure to check out the chart at the bottom of this post for a full timeline of when to buy your turkey, when to thaw it, when to brine it and when to smoke it.
What you need for the cold water thawing method
Instead of thawing your turkey for several days in the refrigerator, another option is to thaw it in cold water. The cold water method will take about 30 minutes per pound, and you will need to make sure that somebody is going to be home for several hours, because you’ll need to change out the water every 30 minutes.
You also need to make sure that you can devote a cooler or sink to the process for that amount of time.
Use a container large enough to hold your turkey and enough water to ensure it’s fully submerged. That could be a sink, cooler, 5 gallon bucket or a brining bucket with a holding lid.
If you’re using a container without a holding lid, you may find that the turkey will float. So be sure to have something to hold it down. You can use something as simple as a bowl filled with water or a heavy pan lid.
The practical way to quickly and safely thaw a turkey
Okay. You now know the slow refrigerator method and the faster cold water method. Now, I’m going to give you the practical method for your backyard barbecue. With this technique, you don’t have to wait 5 days, and you don’t have to nurse a cold water bath for 10 hours.
Instead, buy your frozen turkey Thursday night and place it in the refrigerator on a rimmed sheet pan or in a cooler of ice. Let it thaw in that cold environment (less than 40F degrees) for a good 36 hours. Remember, you need 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of frozen turkey. So if you thaw it for 36 hours, you’ve thawed about 7 pounds of the turkey.
In addition to that, you’re going to brine it for another 8-12 hours, so that counts for another couple pounds of thaw time. So that’s around 9 pounds of thaw time accounted for.
When you wake up Saturday, transition to the cold water method. Fill your sink with cold tap water and add the turkey. Whatever weight your bird is, subtract that by 7 pounds plus the amount of pounds that will thaw during the brine. Then, do the cold water method for 30 minutes per pound remaining. (Sorry to give you a crazy math problem). The below chart will help.
Remember, you must change out the cold water every 30 minutes. During that last 30 minutes, make your turkey brine.
Then, remove the turkey from the water. Take it out of the packaging, remove the giblets and plastic pieces, and place the turkey in the brine. Place it back in the refrigerator or a cooler, maintaining a temperature below 40F degrees.
You’ll finish the thawing process and brine your bird all at the same time, so when you wake up Sunday morning, you can smoke a perfectly juicy turkey, leaving you with tons of recipe options for the rest of the week.
When you’re all done, sanitize everything that came into contact with the raw poultry or thawing water.
Your Weekend Grilling Turkey Timeline
If you’re like me, all those numbers might have your head spinning, so here is a handy chart that tells you when to buy your turkey, when to perform the cold water thaw, when to brine it and when to smoke it. I aimed for a reasonable done time around dinner.
You’ll notice that there is no need to do the cold water thaw for a 10-12-pound turkey. They’ll thaw quickly enough in the fridge, that you can skip that step.
And while the chart above planned for a 36-hour thaw time in the fridge, it’s okay, if you end up thawing it in the fridge longer than that to hit a good target time for your brine.
This was obviously created for weekend grilling, not Thanksgiving Thursday. If you want to use this method for Thanksgiving, just adjust that done time to when you want to have dinner ready and move backwards.
Now get out there and smoke some turkeys. If you do, be sure to tag me @girlscangrill on social media, and tag #TurkeySmoke.