The short answer to the question, ‘Can you cook a partially frozen turkey?’, is yes. Partially frozen turkey will take roughly 25% longer than a fully defrosted turkey while frozen turkey will take roughly 50% longer to cook.
By adjusting for the extra cooking time required, it can safely be cooked in the oven or the smoker.
When I was a prep cook, we did not always have time to wait out the defrosting time for a whole turkey before cooking. We would have to start preparing it before it could thaw all the way through. With a few key guidelines, you can cook a partially frozen turkey. Let me tell you how!
This article is a detailed guide to preparing a partially frozen turkey using the oven and the smoker. Learn how to thaw and brine your bird and the recommended cooking times for different sizes of turkey. Diving in:
Cooking a turkey that is not fully thawed demands longer cooking time. The key is to stick to the 2-hour rule.
The two-hour rule states that you do not let your food stay in the danger zone any longer than two hours. The danger zone refers to the temperature range between 40°F-140°F which encourages bacteria to grow.
If the temperature is over 90°F, you only get an hour before the food goes bad.
The cooking gear you choose should be excellent in maintaining its internal temperature to ensure the turkey cooks evenly. I recommend using either your oven or your smoker.
With a partially defrosted turkey, it is important to start at a lower temperature and crank it up slowly instead of starting at a higher temperature in an attempt to cut on cooking time.
Maintaining a low temp for a long time could keep your meat in the danger zone too long. On the other hand, temperatures over 375°F are likely to roast the bark while leaving the inside cold and raw.
I recommend an initial cooking temp of 275°F for the first hour before raising the temp to 325°F.
Preheat your oven to 275°F. As it comes up to temp, prepare your turkey.
Pat the partially frozen turkey dry using kitchen paper towels. Pull out the giblets and any ice cubes within the turkey’s cavity. Leaving the ice cubes results in a longer cooking duration. Score the turkey to allow spices and heat to penetrate the meat fibers faster.
Generously apply your favorite turkey rub throughout the bird including the inside. I recommend Lawry's Perfect Blend Poultry Rub for my unbrined turkey recipes. Brined turkey on the other hand is already salted so I opt for Frontier Poultry Seasoning because it is salt-free.
To get the rub to stick to the meat, I like to brush some yellow mustard or melted butter before applying the rub.
Place your partially thawed turkey in a roasting pan and put it in the preheated oven. After cooking for an hour, it is time to turn the heat up to 325°F.
For accuracy and safety, use a meat probe thermometer to read the internal temperature of the turkey. I use ThermoPro TP19H Digital Meat Thermometer.
It is fast and highly accurate. Push the probe into the thickest part of the turkey. That is the turkey breast and thighs. Make sure the probe does not touch the bone. Your turkey is done at an internal temp of 165°F that holds for 30 seconds.
Let the meat rest for at least 10 minutes before carving. This gives the juices enough time to be redistributed throughout the meat. Carve and serve!
If you prefer smoking the turkey, start by preparing the turkey as explained above and placing it on a roasting pan.
Next, decide on the wood flavor to use. For my smoked turkey, I prefer pairing it with apple wood flavor which is why I like Weber 17621 Smoking Wood Chips.
Preheat your smoker to 275°F.
Place the pan holding the turkey on the cooking grates. Maintain this temperature for the first hour.
After an hour, crank the heat up to 325°F for the rest of the cook.
For a crispy bark, smoke the turkey at a temp of 375°F for the last 30 minutes. Using a meat probe, check that the internal temp of the thigh and turkey breast meat reads 165°F. It is done.
Let the turkey rest. Carve and serve!
Here are some additional tips to consider the next time you cook your turkey from a partially frozen state:
Spatchcocking is also called butterflying. This is when you use your kitchen shears to cut out the spinal bones of the partially frozen turkey, making it possible to flatten the bird on the dish.
This may not be the conventional shape of a Thanksgiving turkey but if you want to cook a frozen turkey in less time, butterflying it should do the trick.
Resting meat is essential for the general flavor and texture of the meat. This allows the redistribution of the juices. You should rest the meat for at least 3 minutes before carving.
If you carve your turkey without resting it, you will end up with a flood of fluids tricking down your roasting rack and a dry piece of meat.
For food safety, use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of the innermost part of the bird.
Dark meat, meaning the leg and thigh meat cooks at a different rate than white meat because it has more connective tissue to break down.
Although the recommended done temp is 165°F, dark meat cooked to this temp is still chewy because it has more connective tissue. For tender turkey breast, I recommend taking the bird out at 175°F. It will be easier to carve and chew.
Now that you have the answer to ‘can you cook a partially frozen turkey’, let’s see how you can safely thaw your bird.
A turkey that is frozen solid is virtually impenetrable. First, you cannot pull out the giblets or cut into the neck. Second, your seasoning will never stick to the meat and third, how can anyone get a thermometer in there? These are the major reasons why it is easier to work with a defrosted turkey.
Once you take the turkey out of the fridge, it starts to thaw. Bacteria that were rendered inactive by the freezing temperature begin to grow again. At temperatures between 40°F-140°F, the bacteria will grow.
It is unwise to defrost a turkey at room temperature because the meat will stay too long in the danger zone. For food safety, thaw your turkey using the refrigerator, cold water, or a microwave. Here’s how:
The USDA recommends using your refrigerator to thaw a frozen turkey. This is the safest method of the three since it involves reducing the internal temp of the turkey slowly using consistent cold temperatures.
However, thawing in the refrigerator is a slow process. At a thawing rate of around 5 pounds per day, a 10lb. turkey that is completely frozen will be fully thawed in 2 days. Bigger birds that weigh up to 15 lbs should be fully thawed in 3 days.
Once thawed, it can be stored in the fridge for two days.
If you need to thaw your bird faster, use a cold water bath. This involves submerging the turkey in a bowl or sink filled with cold water.
Before submerging the icy turkey into a cold water bath, ensure the wrapping is airtight to keep the water from sipping into the meat. Change the water every 30-40 minutes to avoid stalling thawing.
A cold water bath thaws the turkey at a rate of 30 minutes per pound. Therefore, a small turkey weighing 8-10 lb should take 4-5 hours to thaw fully while a 16 lb turkey should take around 8 hours.
Once thawed, cook immediately.
If your microwave model can fit your bird, use it to thaw your turkey even faster.
First and foremost, take the turkey out of its packaging and place it in a microwave-safe dish.
Allow for a thawing rate of around 6 minutes per pound. For a 10lb bird, set the defrost function for 1 hour. Bigger birds weighing up to 16 lb will take up to one and a half hours to fully thaw.
Rotate and flip the bird occasionally to encourage even thawing of the meat. Once done, cook the turkey immediately since microwaving is known to cause hot spots within the food.
Holding partially cooked food puts you at risk for food poisoning which leads to unpleasant symptoms.
No. You cannot successfully brine a partially frozen turkey. Here’s why:
There is a lot more to brining than just sitting your bird in a saline solution. To infuse your meat with that saline solution, osmosis, and diffusion have to take place.
Through these processes, a brine manipulates the proteins in the meat. Osmosis traps water within the meat fibers making them juicier and improving the texture while diffusion allows the salt to penetrate the meat fibers and flavor them.
Frozen meat means the fibers are impenetrable. If you like a brined turkey, I recommend fully thawing your meat before introducing a brine for the best results.
Completely frozen turkey takes 50% longer to cook compared to fully defrosted turkey.
The USDA recommends a cooking time of 20-25 minutes per pound at a temperature of 325°F. Going by that estimate, a large Thanksgiving turkey boasting 16 lbs should take you 10 hours to cook from a frozen state. Cooking a frozen turkey weighing 8lbs-10lbs from a frozen state should take 5-8.5 hours.
Can you cook a partially frozen turkey? By employing either your oven or the smoker, yes! The important thing when cooking a frozen turkey is to adjust for the cooking time and steer clear of the danger zone.