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Turkey still a block of ice? Chill out

Published on -11/21/2013, 10:07 AM

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I'm giving my age away a little, but I remember an old Johnny Carson monologue about Thanksgiving. (For people younger than 40, he was the guy who hosted "The Tonight Show" before Jay Leno.)

It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and Johnny asked the audience if they had placed their frozen turkey in the refrigerator to thaw. He then concluded that, if they hadn't, they might as well cancel Thanksgiving.

It really isn't that drastic an issue. There are other options for thawing that bird. However, frozen turkey seems to be an annual problem, and I've heard many creative ideas over the years for getting it thawed in time.

Let me set the record straight. It is not safe to thaw a turkey in the trunk of your car, in a closed cold barbecue grill on the patio, in a cooler on the porch, in the garage, basement, bathtub or clothes drier. Even though the turkey might stay frozen on the inside as it thaws, the outside is exposed to the temperature danger zone in these methods -- and this might result in a food-borne illness.

The very best way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. But, Johnny was right: If you don't get it in the refrigerator soon enough, it won't completely thaw using this method. It takes 24 hours of thawing time in the refrigerator for each 5 pounds of frozen turkey, so a 25-pound bird needs to start thawing on Saturday for roasting on Thursday.

You also can defrost in cold water. This method can be used to finish thawing the turkey that was only in the refrigerator for a day or so. But this also takes time, attention and a lot of water. Place the turkey in a leak-proof bag in a large pot (or cleaned and sanitized sink) and submerge in cold water. The water needs to be changed every 30 to 60 minutes; don't just leave the turkey in the same water for hours. The reason for this is the water needs to be kept colder than 70 degrees the whole time to keep the outside of the bird cold. Thawing this way takes approximately 30 minutes for each pound, so your 25-pound turkey would have you changing water for 12.5 hours.

If you have a smaller turkey, it could be thawed in the microwave. But because some portions of the turkey might start to get warm in this process, it needs to go straight into the oven immediately after microwave thawing.

You could even cook the turkey directly from the freezer. It will take about 50 percent more time. So your 25-pound bird would take about 7 to 7.5 hours to roast, and it won't be stuffed. If you do this method, you could carefully remove the frozen pack of giblets during roasting when the bird becomes thawed enough. (Then throw them away, or remove them from the packaging and finish cooking another way.) Do not try to deep-fry a frozen turkey.

If you really are having trouble finding space to allow a frozen turkey to defrost in the refrigerator for several days, you might consider purchasing a fresh turkey and picking it up just before the holiday. But you're still going to need to find room for it in the refrigerator unless you start to roast it as soon as you get it home from the store.

Whatever your method of thawing, you'll need to use a food thermometer to determine when the turkey is done. Be sure the meat has reached at least 165 degrees, measured in several places, before serving.

Johnny was right on the money with many of his clever quips. But a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning is not a reason to cancel the whole dinner. You just might have to eat later.

For more information on food safety for holiday meals, see the Kansas State Research and Extension food safety website at bit.ly/19H1qB0. You'll find a lot of helpful hints for making holiday meals delicious -- and safe -- for everyone at your table.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences. lbeech@ksu.edu

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