The safest way to thaw a turkey is to place it in the refrigerator and allow it to thaw over several days. Thawing a turkey in cold water or in a microwave are faster safe methods. However, thawing a turkey at room temperature risks food poisoning.
Frozen turkey is safe indefinitely according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Once it begins to thaw, any bacteria present can begin growing again. If a cook leaves a turkey out at room temperature, the skin and outer layer of meat thaw much faster than the core, allowing bacteria to multiply before the bird is completely thawed.
A turkey in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees or below thaws at a rate of about 24 hours per 4 pounds of weight. The cook should leave the turkey in its wrapping and place it on a tray to keep dripping juices from contaminating other foods. Turkey thawed in the refrigerator is safe for cooking or refreezing for up to four days.
Thawing turkey in cold water takes about 30 minutes per pound. The cook should place the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge it in enough cold water to cover the turkey completely. He should change out the water every 30 minutes to keep the turkey chilled.
To thaw a turkey in the microwave, the cook should follow the microwave manufacturer's instructions for defrosting poultry. Cooks should plan on cooking turkeys immediately if they are thawed in the microwave or in cold water.