Leaving a frozen turkey out on the counter overnight is generally not recommended. Thawing a turkey improperly can increase the risk of bacterial growth and foodborne illness. However, whether it’s safe to leave a frozen turkey out depends on several factors.
Can You Leave a Frozen Turkey Out Overnight?
According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), frozen turkeys should never be thawed on the counter or in hot water. This is because the outside of the turkey thaws more quickly than the inside, allowing bacteria to grow in the outer layers while the inner part remains frozen.
Instead, the USDA recommends thawing a turkey only one of three ways:
- In the refrigerator: This is the safest method. Allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey.
- In cold water: Submerge the turkey (in its original wrapper) in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound of turkey.
- In the microwave: Follow manufacturer’s instructions when thawing in the microwave. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
So according to food safety guidelines, it is not recommended to leave a frozen turkey out on the counter overnight.
What Are the Risks of Leaving a Frozen Turkey Out Overnight?
There are a few risks associated with leaving a frozen turkey out at room temperature overnight:
- Bacterial growth: As the turkey’s outer layers begin to thaw, bacteria can start to rapidly multiply. Even if the inner part remains frozen, the exterior can reach unsafe temperatures after two hours between 40°F and 140°F.
- Foodborne illness: Pathogens like salmonella can quickly multiply under unsafe thawing conditions and lead to foodborne illness when the turkey is later cooked and consumed.
- Uneven thawing: Room temperature thawing can lead to uneven cooking later, as the inner areas remain frozen while the outer parts thaw first.
- Thawing too fast: Very fast thawing can affect the turkey’s texture and juices.
How Long Can a Frozen Turkey Be Left Out?
A frozen turkey should never be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, according to the USDA. After 2 hours between 40°F and 140°F, bacteria can multiply quickly.
Here is an approximate timeline for how long a frozen turkey can safely sit on the counter:
- 0-1 hour: Still mostly frozen with minimal thawing. Turkey remains safe.
- 1-2 hours: Outer layers begin thawing, but turkey is likely still cold inside. Use quickly.
- Over 2 hours: Bacteria multiply rapidly as turkey thaws further. Turkey becomes unsafe.
- Over 4 hours: Interior thaws and is in danger zone. Turkey should be discarded.
Keep in mind that the larger the turkey, the more time it will take for the inner areas to thaw. An estimate is that for every 5 pounds of turkey, it takes about 1 hour at room temperature to thaw the innermost areas.
What If a Turkey Is Left Out Overnight?
If a frozen turkey is left on the counter overnight and becomes fully thawed, it should not be cooked or eaten. According to the USDA, turkey that has been left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours (1 hour if temperatures exceed 90°F) should be discarded.
With an overnight thaw, the turkey would be unrefrigerated for much longer than the unsafe 2 hour window. Bacteria have ample time to grow to dangerous levels that can cause food poisoning. Even reheating the turkey may not be enough to kill the pathogens.
What Are Signs a Thawed Turkey Has Spoiled?
Here are some signs that a turkey left out overnight has spoiled and may not be safe to cook or consume:
- Strong, unpleasant odor
- Slimy or sticky skin
- Discolored or brown flesh
- Grey coloring around bones or cavities
A rotten turkey may also show a bulging or leaking package. Discard turkey immediately if you notice any of these signs of spoilage after thawing at room temperature overnight.
Is There Any Way to Tell if a Turkey Is Still Safe?
It can be difficult to tell if a turkey is safe to cook after sitting out thawed all night. Here are a few ways to evaluate the safety of a turkey left out overnight:
- Check the temperature with a food thermometer in several spots. Turkey must reach an internal temperature of 165°F. If still icy in the middle, it may still be safe to cook thoroughly.
- Look for signs of spoilage like odor, touch, or color changes on the skin or flesh.
- Consider how long it was on the counter. If more than 4 hours, it is not safe.
- If in doubt, do not risk eating the turkey. Safest option is to discard.
The USDA states that “when in doubt, throw it out,” so err on the side of caution if uncertain about a turkey’s safety after thawing improperly.
Can You Refreeze a Thawed Turkey?
You should never refreeze a thawed turkey once it reaches temperatures above 40°F. Refreezing a turkey can allow bacteria to survive the freeze and multiply once thawed again.
The USDA states that thawed turkey can be safely refrozen if:
- The turkey remains 40°F or below the entire time
- No more than 1-2 days in the fridge after thawing
- Turkey handled properly and kept cold at all times
But a thawed turkey left out overnight does not meet these safe conditions for refreezing. It’s best to cook or discard fully thawed meat.
Can You Still Cook a Turkey Left Out Overnight?
It is not recommended to cook a turkey that has been left out at room temperature overnight. Even cooking a turkey thoroughly that was improperly thawed cannot guarantee it is safe, as some toxins from bacteria can remain even after high temperature cooking.
Your best option is to discard a frozen turkey that was left on the counter overnight and thawed completely. Do not take risks with foodborne pathogens.
What to Do If Turkey Was Left Out Overnight
Follow these steps if you discover your frozen turkey was left on the counter overnight and thawed:
- Discard the turkey if left out over 2 hours.
- Check for signs of spoilage. Discard if any odor, slime, or color changes.
- If within the 2 hour window, cook thoroughly to 165°F. Consume quickly.
- Never refreeze a thawed turkey.
- When in doubt, throw it out! Don’t risk getting sick.
How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey
To avoid leaving a turkey out too long, use one of these safe USDA-recommended thawing methods:
- Allow 24 hours for every 4-5 lbs of turkey.
- Place turkey in container to prevent juices from dripping.
- Cook within 1-2 days. Do not refreeze.
Cold Water Thawing
- Submerge sealed turkey in cold water, changing water every 30 mins.
- Allow 30 minutes per pound of turkey.
- Cook immediately. Do not refreeze.
- Follow appliance directions for defrosting.
- Cook turkey immediately after thawing.
- Use microwave-safe container to catch juices.
Here are some key takeaways on whether it’s safe to leave a frozen turkey out overnight:
- Never leave a frozen turkey out more than 2 hours before cooking.
- Thaw turkey in the fridge, in cold water, or in the microwave instead.
- A turkey left out overnight exceeds the safe 2 hour window and should be discarded.
- Do not refreeze a thawed turkey or try to cook a turkey left out overnight.
- Look for signs of spoilage and throw turkey out if any doubt about its safety.
The Bottom Line
It is not worth the risk to consume a turkey that has been improperly thawed. Leaving a frozen turkey out on the counter overnight can lead to bacterial growth that causes foodborne illness. The best practice is to safely thaw turkey in the fridge, cold water, or microwave only.
If you find your frozen turkey left out overnight, it is better to be safe than sorry. Unless you are absolutely certain less than 2 hours have passed, it is best to discard the turkey. With the proper thawing method, you can enjoy a holiday meal without worrying about the dangers of food poisoning.