When should I start thawing my 20 lb turkey?

Planning ahead for your holiday meal is key to avoiding last minute panics in the kitchen. One of the most important things to think about is thawing your turkey, especially if you have a large bird. A 20 lb turkey takes significant time to thaw, so knowing exactly when to take it out of the freezer is crucial.

In this article, we’ll walk through everything you need to know about thawing a 20 lb turkey. We’ll cover the different methods for thawing, how long it takes, when to start based on your Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner plans, storage tips after thawing, and tips to make sure it thaws safely. Planning ahead takes the stress out of holiday cooking and ensures your centerpiece turkey is ready right when you need it.

How Long Does It Take to Thaw a 20 lb Turkey?

The most important factor in determining when to start thawing your turkey is understanding how long it takes based on the thawing method.

Here are thawing times for a 20 lb turkey:

Thawing Method Time Needed
Refrigerator 4-5 days
Cold Water 8-10 hours
Cold Water (Changed Every 30 Minutes) 5-6 hours

As you can see, thawing in the refrigerator takes the longest at 4-5 days. This is the safest method but requires the most planning ahead. If you’re short on time, you can cut thawing time to 8-10 hours using the cold water method. Just make sure the turkey stays cold during the process – we’ll go over tips later.

The faster cold water method, where you change the water every 30 minutes, can thaw a 20 lb turkey in just 5-6 hours. But you need to monitor it closely to change that cold water out frequently.

Keep these timelines in mind as you plan out when you want to start thawing your turkey.

When to Start Thawing Based on Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner

We recommended thawing your turkey in the refrigerator whenever possible for food safety. Since it takes 4-5 days for a 20 lb turkey to thaw this way, here is when you should take your turkey out of the freezer:

For Thanksgiving Dinner

Take your turkey out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator to thaw on:

  • Saturday, November 19 for Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 24
  • Sunday, November 20 for Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 24

This gives your turkey between 4-5 days to thaw in the fridge before Turkey Day.

For Christmas Dinner

For Christmas dinner, plan to remove your turkey from the freezer and start thawing in the refrigerator on:

  • Friday, December 16 for Christmas dinner on Saturday, December 24
  • Saturday, December 17 for Christmas dinner on Saturday, December 24
  • Sunday, December 18 for Christmas dinner on Saturday, December 24

Again, this provides 4-5 days for safe thawing in the refrigerator before enjoying your holiday meal.

Storage Tips After Thawing

Once your turkey has thawed in the refrigerator, it’s important to follow proper storage procedures to keep it safe until cooking:

  • Keep the turkey in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook it. It can safely stay in a fridge set at 40°F or below for 1-2 days after thawing.
  • Store the thawed turkey on a tray or plate to catch any juices that may leak. Don’t let the raw turkey juices drip onto other foods.
  • Never refreeze a thawed turkey! Cook it within the 1-2 day refrigerator storage timeline.
  • Use thoroughly washed hands and utensils when handling the raw turkey to prevent cross contamination.
  • Make sure to remove the giblets from the turkey cavity before cooking if they weren’t removed before freezing.

Following these tips will help keep your thawed turkey fresh right up until it’s time to roast for your holiday meal.

Tips for Safe Thawing

Any time you thaw poultry, you want to use methods to keep it safe and prevent bacterial growth:

  • Thaw turkey in a refrigerator set at 40°F or below, or in cold water changed every 30 minutes.
  • Never thaw at room temperature or in hot water – this allows for bacterial growth in the “danger zone” between 40-140°F.
  • Cook your turkey immediately after it is fully thawed. Do not refreeze.
  • Place the turkey on a plate or tray to catch any juices during thawing.
  • Wash your hands after handling the raw turkey.
  • Use clean tools and prep surfaces, and avoid cross contamination when thawing.
  • Cook your turkey thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F as measured in the thickest part of the breast and thigh.

As long as you plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator or with regular cold water changes, you can safely thaw your turkey and avoid the risk of foodborne illness.

Should I Brine My Turkey After Thawing?

Brining is a popular way to keep turkey meat juicy, tender and full of flavor. If you want to brine your turkey, you should do so after thawing but before cooking.

Here are some tips if you plan to brine your turkey:

  • Make your brine before thawing the turkey so it’s ready to pour over the thawed bird.
  • Once turkey is fully thawed in the refrigerator, remove it and submerge in your brine.
  • Let turkey brine in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours depending on size. Use a brining bag or deep container.
  • Remove turkey from brine, rinse and pat dry. Discard used brine.
  • Let air dried turkey rest in the refrigerator for a few hours before roasting.
  • Your turkey is now ready for your favorite roasting method after proper thawing and brining.

Brining does make the thawing process take 1-2 days longer, so adjust your thawing timeline accordingly if you want to brine your Thanksgiving or Christmas bird.

Whole Turkey Thawing Methods Comparison

For easy reference, here is a comparison of the different methods for thawing a whole turkey:

Thawing Method Time Needed for 20lb Turkey Benefits Downsides
Refrigerator 4-5 days Safest method; ideal for planning ahead Takes the longest
Cold Water 8-10 hours Faster than fridge; turkey submerged in cold water Requires monitoring water temp
Cold Water Changed Every 30 Min 5-6 hours Fastest method; new cold water ensures safe temps Very labor intensive

As you can see, each thawing method has its own benefits and downsides. We recommend refrigerator thawing when you can plan 4-5 days in advance. But cold water methods provide faster timelines when you’re short on time before cooking your turkey.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have some questions about thawing your turkey? Here are some frequently asked questions with quick answers:

Should I thaw my turkey in the sink?

No, you should avoid thawing your turkey directly in a sink. A better option is thawing in a leakproof bag or container submerged in cold water. The container should be placed in a sink or large bowl. Thawing directly in a sink can lead to cross-contamination.

Can I roast my turkey still frozen?

It is not recommended to roast a turkey without thawing first. The turkey will not cook evenly and bacteria can still thrive even at oven temps. For food safety, always thaw your turkey fully before cooking.

Should I thaw my turkey in the microwave?

Microwave thawing is not recommended. It can lead to uneven thawing and cooking, and potential bacterial growth in warm spots. It’s best to use the refrigerator or cold water methods.

Where should I store a thawed turkey if not cooking it right away?

Store your properly thawed turkey in the refrigerator set at 40°F or below. Use a container or tray to prevent raw juices from leaking. Cook within 1-2 days.

Can I refreeze a thawed turkey?

No, never refreeze a thawed turkey! Refreezing will lead to unsafe food temperatures that grow bacteria. Always cook within the refrigerator storage timeline after thawing.

The Takeaway on Turkey Thawing

The proper thawing method and timeline are key for a delicious and safe turkey dinner. For a frozen 20 lb turkey:

  • Plan ahead and allow 4-5 days for thawing in the refrigerator.
  • Monitor the temperature and time if thawing in cold water.
  • Never thaw on the counter or in warm water to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Cook your turkey promptly after it’s thawed – don’t refreeze!

With the right techniques and planning ahead, you can thaw a large 20 lb turkey gradually in the fridge or more quickly in cold water. Use our recommendations to determine exactly when you should start thawing your turkey this Thanksgiving or Christmas so your centerpiece is ready right on time.


Here are some helpful resources we used to research proper turkey thawing times and techniques:

USDA Guide to Thawing Turkey: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/poultry/how-thaw-turkey

Butterball Turkey Thawing Timelines: https://www.butterball.com/how-to/thaw-a-turkey
Reynolds Kitchens Turkey Thawing Guide: https://www.reynoldskitchens.com/tips/turkey-tips/thawing-times/

CDC Refrigerator Thawing Guidelines: https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/holiday-turkey-thawing.html

Safe Food Handling Tips for a Turkey: https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/handling-turkey-safely

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