As you start planning your Thanksgiving dinner, don’t forget an important step: Defrosting frozen turkeys.
Even the most seasoned cooks may not know just how long the process takes.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you should allocate 24 hours of thaw time in the refrigerator for every 4-5 pounds of turkey.
That’s about three days for a 15 pound bird.
There are other methods procrastinating cooks can use in a pinch, like thawing turkey in a microwave or in cold water that's replaced every 30 minutes, but the USDA and other experts says the safest and healthiest method is waiting it out in the refrigerator.
"If you thaw out your turkey improperly, say you leave it out on the countertop or some place that's not 40 degrees or below, what that does is that allows your turkey to get into a temperature zone we call the 'danger zone'... that really invites bacteria to multiply," said Wendy Mihm, Director of Food Safety Education at the USDA.
And don’t worry about starting too early—you can safety store a fully thawed turkey for another one or two days in the refrigerator.
It’s important to keep your kitchen sanitized during this process to avoid food-borne illness.
"When you prepare your turkey meals, even if you have a fully cooked product, when you cut it, the utensils you use-- the knife, the cutting board-- try to make sure they don't cross contaminate," said Dr. Hua Wang, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University.
Dr. Don Schaffner, Distinguished Professor and Extension Specialist at Rutgers University, warned against rinsing the turkey before thawing or cooking.
"It's just a really bad idea to rinse off poultry in your sink prior to cooking it. There's no reason to do that… all it does is really cross-contaminate your sink," he said.
Thoroughly sanitize any surfaces in your kitchen or refrigerator that come in contact with the raw turkey as it's thawing.
If you have questions about food safety, you can call the USDA’s meat and poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time weekdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
You can also use this interactive calculator from Butterball to figure out when to start defrosting.