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Can I leave my turkey out overnight to thaw?

Many people planning to cook a turkey for an upcoming holiday or event wonder if it’s safe to leave the turkey out on the counter overnight to thaw. There are some risks associated with thawing a turkey at room temperature, so it’s important to understand proper thawing methods to ensure food safety.

Quick Answer

The quick answer is no, you should not leave a frozen turkey out overnight to thaw. Thawing a turkey at room temperature can lead to bacterial growth and food poisoning. The safest way to thaw a turkey is by moving it from the freezer to the refrigerator allowing 24 hours of thawing time for every 4-5 pounds. You can also thaw in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Turkeys should never be left at room temperature longer than 2 hours while thawing.

Food Safety Risks of Thawing on the Counter

There are two main risks associated with leaving a frozen turkey out on the counter to thaw overnight:

  • Bacterial growth – Room temperature provides ideal conditions for bacteria like salmonella to quickly multiply on poultry. Proper thawing inhibits bacterial growth.
  • Partially cooked outer layer – The outer layer of the turkey can warm to temperatures that support bacterial growth while the inner areas remain frozen. This creates a “temperature danger zone” between 40-140°F prime for bacteria.

These two factors significantly increase the risk of foodborne illness when eating turkey thawed at room temperature. Thawing frozen turkeys on the counter overnight has been directly linked to outbreaks of salmonella poisoning.

Proper Thawing Methods

To safely thaw a frozen turkey, experts recommend the following methods:

Refrigerator Thawing

The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator:

  • Allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey weight
  • Place the wrapped turkey on a tray or pan to catch any juices
  • Make sure the fridge temperature is 40°F or below
  • Cook within 1-2 days after the turkey is fully thawed

A 16 lb turkey will take about 4 days to thaw in the refrigerator. Planning ahead is key!

Cold Water Thawing

For quicker thawing, a turkey can be submerged in cold tap water:

  • Allow 30 minutes per pound of turkey weight
  • Change the water every 30 minutes until thawed
  • Cook immediately after thawing is complete

Make sure the turkey stays cold during this process and that the water is cold enough to inhibit bacterial growth.

Storage Times for Thawed Turkey

Once thawed either in the refrigerator or by the cold water method, here are the maximum times a turkey should be stored before cooking:

Thawed Turkey Storage Temperature Maximum Storage Time
Refrigerator 40°F or below 1-2 days
Cold water thaw Cook immediately

These time limits prevent the thawed turkey from re-entering the “temperature danger zone” and growing harmful bacteria. Store any uneaten leftover turkey for only 3-4 days in the refrigerator.

What if My Turkey is Still Partially Frozen?

If your turkey did not fully thaw overnight in the refrigerator, do not attempt to thaw it on the counter. Instead, here are some options to cook a partially frozen turkey safely:

  • Cook it longer – Add 50% more cooking time for a partially frozen turkey
  • Cook it at a lower temperature – Cook at 300-325°F to allow gradual thawing
  • Cut it up – Break it down into smaller pieces to thaw faster

If thawing in the refrigerator, be sure to keep consistently monitoring its temperature and pliability to determine if it needs more time. And do not let it sit on the counter after removing from the refrigerator.

Signs of Improperly Thawed Turkey

Be on the lookout for the following red flags if you think your turkey thawed improperly or was left at room temperature too long:

  • Unpleasant odor
  • Slimy texture or coating
  • Discoloration
  • Loosely attached parts

A bad smell, slime, color changes, or loose pieces likely mean bacterial contamination. Do not eat a turkey displaying any of these signs of spoilage.

Thawing Times Summary

Here is a summary of the key turkey thawing times to remember:

Thawing Method Time
Refrigerator 24 hours per 4-5 lbs turkey weight
Cold water 30 minutes per lb turkey weight
Room temperature Never leave turkey out more than 2 hours


Thawing turkey on the counter or at room temperature overnight creates an unsafe environment for bacterial growth and foodborne illness. Always use proper refrigerator or cold water thawing methods, and never let your turkey sit out for more than 2 hours after thawing is complete. Following safe handling guidelines will help you avoid suffering the unpleasant effects of improperly thawed turkey. Allowing plenty of time for refrigerator thawing is the best practice for an enjoyable and safe holiday feast.