How Long After Defrosting Turkey Should You Cook It? A Beginner’s Guide

Turkey is a quintessential part of many holiday meals, but handling and preparing it can sometimes be daunting, especially for beginner cooks. One common question that arises is: how long after defrosting a turkey should it be cooked? In this article, we’ll dive into this topic and provide you with a comprehensive guide to ensure food safety and prevent any potential foodborne illnesses.

Understanding the Risks of Improper Turkey Handling

The main concern with leaving a defrosted turkey at room temperature for an extended period is the potential growth of harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. These bacteria thrive in the “Danger Zone” temperature range of 40°F to 140°F (4°C to 60°C). If a turkey is left within this temperature range for too long, the bacteria can multiply rapidly, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), turkey, stuffing, and gravy left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour if the temperature is above 90°F/32°C) should be discarded. This guideline is based on the fact that bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes when exposed to these temperatures.

How Long Can a Defrosted Turkey Stay in the Refrigerator?

The MDH recommends that a thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days before cooking. However, it’s crucial to follow proper thawing methods to ensure the turkey is safe to consume.

The recommended thawing methods include:

  1. Refrigerator Thawing: This is the safest method. Place the turkey, still in its original wrapping, on a tray in the refrigerator. The MDH provides the following guidelines for thawing times:

    • 4 to 12 pounds: 1 to 3 days
    • 12 to 16 pounds: 3 to 4 days
    • 16 to 20 pounds: 4 to 5 days
    • 20 to 24 pounds: 5 to 6 days
  2. Cold Water Thawing: Wrap the turkey securely, and submerge it in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. The MDH recommends the following thawing times:

    • 4 to 12 pounds: 2 to 6 hours
    • 12 to 16 pounds: 6 to 8 hours
    • 16 to 20 pounds: 8 to 10 hours
    • 20 to 24 pounds: 10 to 12 hours
  3. Microwave Thawing: Check your microwave owner’s manual for the appropriate minutes per pound and power level to use for thawing. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing in the microwave, and do not refreeze.

It’s important to note that a turkey that has been properly thawed in the refrigerator may be refrozen if necessary, but a turkey thawed using the cold water or microwave method should not be refrozen.

Cooking the Defrosted Turkey

Once your turkey is fully thawed, it’s crucial to cook it immediately to prevent bacterial growth. The MDH recommends setting your oven temperature to no lower than 325°F (163°C) and roasting the turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165°F (74°C). Use a food thermometer to check the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh or breast, without touching the bone.

Here are the estimated cooking times for turkeys at 325°F (163°C), according to the MDH:

Unstuffed Turkey

  • 4 to 8 pounds (breast): 1½ to 3¼ hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds: 2¾ to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds: 3 to 3¾ hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds: 3¾ to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds: 4¼ to 4½ hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 4½ to 5 hours

Stuffed Turkey

  • 4 to 8 pounds (breast): 2½ to 3½ hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds: 3 to 3½ hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds: 3½ to 4 hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds: 4 to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds: 4¼ to 4¾ hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 4¾ to 5¼ hours

Remember, these are estimates, and it’s always best to use a food thermometer to ensure the turkey and stuffing (if applicable) have reached a safe internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).

Storing and Reheating Leftovers

If you have leftovers, the MDH recommends dividing them into small portions and refrigerating or freezing them in covered shallow containers for quicker cooling. Use refrigerated turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days, and gravy within 1 to 2 days. If freezing, use leftovers within 2 to 6 months for best quality.

When reheating leftovers, ensure that the turkey, stuffing, and gravy are heated to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).

Additional Tips and Precautions

  • Always wash your hands, utensils, and any surfaces that come into contact with raw turkey and its juices with soap and water.
  • Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys, as the stuffing may harbor harmful bacteria if not handled properly.
  • If using the stuffing method, fill the cavity loosely just before cooking, and ensure the center of the stuffing reaches at least 165°F (74°C).
  • Let the turkey stand for 20 minutes after cooking to allow the juices to redistribute, making it easier to carve.


Handling and preparing turkey can be a daunting task, but by following proper food safety guidelines and being mindful of time and temperature, you can ensure a delicious and safe meal. Remember, when it comes to a defrosted turkey, it should be cooked immediately or within 1 to 2 days if refrigerated. Always use a food thermometer to verify that the turkey and stuffing have reached a safe internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). With these tips in mind, you can confidently tackle your next turkey-centric meal and impress your guests with your culinary skills.

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