How long does it take to thaw an 18 lb turkey in water?

Quick Answer

It takes about 6-8 hours to thaw an 18 lb turkey in cold water. The general guideline is 30 minutes per pound, so an 18 lb turkey will take 9 hours. However, thawing in cold water can reduce the time by 25-50% compared to thawing in the refrigerator. So for an 18 lb turkey, expect it to take 6-8 hours thawing in cold water.

Detailed Answer

Thawing a turkey is an important part of preparing it for roasting. You need to make sure the turkey is fully thawed before cooking. There are three main ways to safely thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Let’s look at each method:

Thawing in the Refrigerator

The most foolproof way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. This method takes longer but ensures the turkey thaws evenly while staying at a safe, low temperature.

To thaw in the fridge, plan ahead and allow roughly 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. So for an 18 lb turkey, it would take around 4 days in the refrigerator.

Be sure to place the wrapped turkey on a tray or pan to catch any juices that may drip as it thaws. Keep the turkey as close to the bottom of the fridge as possible, where it’s coldest.

Thawing in Cold Water

The fastest way to thaw a turkey is submerging it in cold water. This method can cut the thawing time by as much as 50% compared to the refrigerator method.

To thaw in cold water, keep the turkey in its original wrapping. Place it breast side down in a sink full of cold water. The water should cover the turkey by 1-2 inches. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the water cold.

As a general rule, allow 30 minutes per pound of turkey. So for an 18 lb turkey, estimate 9 hours thawing in cold water. However, given the time-saving benefits of this method, you can expect the thawing to take around 6-8 hours.

Thawing in the Microwave

Thawing a turkey in the microwave is much faster but can lead to uneven thawing. Parts of the turkey may start to cook from the heat of the microwave before other areas are fully thawed.

If thawing in the microwave, plan for approximately 6 minutes per pound. Check the turkey often and allow resting time to allow heat to evenly distribute. For an 18 lb turkey, microwaving will take about 3 hours total but require frequent attention.

Be sure to place the turkey breast side down in a microwave-safe dish. Use the defrost function if available rather than cooking at full power. The USDA recommends microwaving for 4-5 minutes then allowing 10-15 minutes resting before repeating.

Key Factors That Affect Thawing Time

Several factors impact how long it takes to thaw a turkey:

  • Size of the turkey – Larger turkeys take longer.
  • Thawing method – Fridge thawing is slowest; water and microwave are faster.
  • Water temperature – Colder water speeds up the thawing process.
  • Shape of container – A deep, narrow container thaws faster than a shallow, wide one.
  • Water changes – Replacing water keeps it colder for faster thawing.

For an 18 lb turkey using the cold water method, changing the water every 30 minutes will likely get the full thaw done in 6-8 hours.

Steps for Thawing an 18 lb Turkey in Water

Follow these steps for safely thawing an 18 lb turkey in cold water:

  1. Leave turkey wrapped in its original packaging.
  2. Choose a container large enough to submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water.
  3. Place turkey breast side down in the container filled with cold tap water.
  4. The water should cover the turkey by 1-2 inches. Use ice to help keep water cold.
  5. Change water every 30 minutes, replacing with fresh cold water.
  6. Allow 30 minutes thawing time per pound of turkey. Total time will be about 6-8 hours.
  7. Check turkey regularly. When thawed, the flesh will be soft and movable.
  8. Once thawed, cook immediately or store in fridge 1-2 days.

Important: Do not let the raw turkey sit out at room temperature once thawed or before cooking. Refrigerate until ready to cook. Cook within 1-2 days for optimal safety and quality.

Monitoring the Turkey During Thawing

As the turkey thaws in cold water, regularly check progress:

  • Lift the breast area to check if still frozen. The flesh should start softening from the outside in.
  • Look for ice crystals in the cavity. You want these fully melted before cooking.
  • Test that giblets in the neck and body cavities are thawed before removal.
  • Make sure thicker parts like the drumsticks and thighs are thawed. No part should feel icy cold.
  • Once fully thawed, the skin will be soft and the flesh will spring back when pressed gently.

Is It Safe to Leave a Turkey Thawing Overnight?

It’s generally not recommended to leave a thawing turkey unattended overnight. However, an overnight thaw can be safe if done properly:

  • Only thaw overnight in the refrigerator, never at room temperature.
  • Place the wrapped turkey on a tray or pan to contain leaks and spills.
  • Make sure thawing turkey remains at 40°F or below. Check fridge temp.
  • Avoid letting the thaw last beyond 24 hours total.
  • Cook the fully thawed turkey immediately the next day.

A turkey thawed overnight in the fridge must be cooked right away since the thawing time is extended. Leaving a thawed turkey another night risks dangerous bacterial growth.

What Temperature Should the Water Be for Thawing a Turkey?

For fastest thawing, the water should be as cold as possible without freezing. Ice water is ideal. The optimal temperature range is:

  • 34°-40°F / 1°-4°C

Aim for the lowest temperature in that range. The colder the water, the faster the turkey will thaw. Be sure to monitor water temperature when periodically changing the water so it remains cold.

Don’t use hot water to thaw a turkey. Dangerous bacterial growth can occur above 40°F (4°C). Using hot water can also begin cooking the turkey and lead to uneven thawing.

Should You Thaw a Turkey in a Cooler or Bucket?

Thawing a turkey in a large cooler, bucket, or tub can work well to keep the cold water contained:

  • Choose a container large enough to fully submerge the wrapped turkey.
  • Coolers are good since they maintain a stable cool temperature.
  • Add ice to the water to regulate temperature and keep it extra cold.
  • The container should be cleaned first and exclusively used for food purposes.

Plastic, enamel, glass, or food-grade containers are best. Avoid anything with lead-based paints or chemicals. Keep the turkey submerged as it thaws.

Does a Turkey Thaw Faster in Moving Water?

Circulating the water can help speed thawing a bit compared to still water:

  • The motion ensures the water stays cooler.
  • It allows for more even exposure to the cold temperatures.
  • A circulating or fountain pump can move the water.
  • Or you can agitate the water periodically by rotating the turkey.

Just don’t leave the turkey or let water overflow. Monitor it and keep turkey submerged. The difference in thaw time is generally only marginal with circulating water.

Can You Leave a Turkey in the Fridge for Too Long after Thawing?

Yes, leaving a thawed turkey in the fridge for too long can become dangerous:

  • Only store a thawed turkey in the fridge 1-2 days before cooking.
  • The USDA says cook thawed turkey within 1-2 days, no longer.
  • Thawed poultry must be kept at 40°F or below.
  • After 2 days, bacteria like salmonella can multiply to unsafe levels.

To allow brining or marinating after thawing, only do so immediately before cooking. Do not let the thawed turkey linger in the fridge. Cook thawed turkey as soon as possible.

Can You Refreeze a Thawed Turkey?

Refreezing a thawed turkey is not recommended:

  • Once thawed, turkey is more susceptible to bacterial growth.
  • Thawed ice crystals can damage turkey texture.
  • The turkey meat’s quality will degrade with refreezing.
  • USDA says only refreeze if turkey remains chilled below 40°F.
  • For safety, cook fully thawed turkey immediately.

Ideally, never thaw more turkey than you plan to cook within 1-2 days. You lose quality trying to refreeze a thawed turkey. Cook thawed poultry right away for food safety.

What Are Signs a Turkey Is Bad or Spoiled after Thawing?

Look for these signs a thawed turkey has spoiled and should be discarded:

  • Strong, unpleasant odors
  • Grey, slimy flesh
  • Sticky, tacky texture
  • Discolored or dull, faded skin
  • Off-putting ammonia smell

Safely discard any turkey showing these or other signs of spoilage. Do not risk eating a thawed turkey that smells bad or looks off. When in doubt, throw it out.


Thawing a turkey thoroughly before cooking is critical for even cooking and food safety. While a 18 lb turkey can be thawed in the refrigerator over 4 days, the fastest method is in cold water. Plan for a 6-8 hour thaw for an 18 lb turkey submerged in cold water. Monitor the turkey closely and change water every 30 mins to speed thawing. Once thawed, cook the turkey within 1-2 days and don’t refreeze. With some planning and prep, you can safely thaw a turkey using water for a delicious holiday meal.

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