If you find yourself with a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning, relax. You can still have a beautiful, flavorful, juicy bird for your holiday feast…really! We have the time and temperature tips you need for a picture-perfect turkey direct from frozen when you’re in a pinch.
Extra dinner guests show up unexpectedly? Forget to pull the turkey from the freezer? Whatever the reason why your turkey is still frozen solid, don’t fret. You should never cook a partially frozen turkey because the outer layers of turkey will become a desert while the frozen center thaws and comes to a safe temperature, but if thawing isn’t an option, a completely frozen turkey can still be the centerpiece of your holiday meal.
Benefits of Cooking a Frozen Turkey
- Won’t the white meat overcook? Actually, when you cook a fully frozen turkey, the breasts are the largest muscles on the turkey and will take the longest time to thaw, cook, and to come to their pull temperature. The relatively smaller legs and thighs will thaw and cook faster from their frozen state, giving them more time for connective tissue to dissolve. The white and dark meat will cook properly and you may find your turkey is less likely to have dry breast meat than when you cook a thawed turkey.
- Refrigerator Space: No thawing means no turkey taking up space in your fridge and no stressful thawing process.
Challenges and Considerations with Frozen Turkeys
- A Longer Cook Time: Just as you would expect, a frozen turkey will take longer to cook than one that is thawed before being placed in the oven. Plan on it taking approximately 50% more time to cook completely—so be aware that your dinner may be served later than originally planned. For example, our 14-pound turkey cooked in 5-3/4 hours.
- Oven Temp to Set? Set your oven temperature too low and the outer meat will overcook. Set it too high and you’ll end up with the same problem encountered when cooking a partially frozen turkey (dry, overcooked outer breast meat when the thermal center finally reaches your pull temp). A moderate oven temperature of 325°F (163°C) is the sweet spot.
Roasting is Best
Q: Can I smoke a frozen turkey?
A: No. Remember that the USDA recommends that turkey needs to be out of the danger zone within 4 hours of the turkey being taken out of the freezer or refrigerator. The temperatures of smoking (225-275°F [107-135°C]) are too low to cook a frozen turkey to a food safe temperature within 4 hours.
Q: Can I deep-fry a frozen turkey?
A: NO!! NEVER. The dramatic temperature difference between the hot oil and the frozen turkey will cause violent boil overs. Oil spilling over the top edge of the pot could ignite with the flame from the burner below. Trying to deep-fry a frozen turkey is what causes explosions. The turkey must be COMPLETELY thawed and patted dry before being deep-fried. Read our post, Deep Fried Turkey Made Safe and Delicious for more information on how to safely deep fry a turkey.
Cooking a Frozen Turkey Step-by-Step
How to take a turkey from a block of ice to a picture-perfect centerpiece:
1. Preheat oven to 325°F (163°C).
2. Remove the turkey from the wrapper and place on a v-shaped rack set over a sheet pan. Using a v-shaped rack is important to keep the frozen turkey from rolling around.
➤ Start with a Partial Cook: A frozen-solid turkey is impenetrable. Seasoning won’t adhere, the giblets and neck aren’t going anywhere, and thermometer probes can’t be placed. The turkey has to be partially thawed before proceeding with a recipe.
3. Cook the turkey at 325°F (163°C) for about 2 to 2-1/2 hours.
4. Once the first cook time is up, take a few temperatures in the turkey with an instant read thermometer like a Thermapen® Mk4. At this point the turkey will have dramatic temperature gradients, still being partially frozen in some areas. The thigh will likely be in the range of 80-100°F (27-38°C), while the breast’s temperature will be lower. If the thermal center of the breast meat is still frozen solid, return the turkey to the oven to cook it a bit longer until thawed enough to place the probe properly.
5. Once the breast meat is thawed enough to place a probe, remove the giblets and neck—the neck may still be surrounded by ice crystals.
6. Season the turkey as desired. We brushed the turkey with oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and filled the cavity with aromatic vegetables and herbs.
7. Place the ChefAlarm®‘s probe (we used a Pro-Series® High Temp Cooking Probe) into the deepest part of the breast laterally from the side of the neck cavity, avoiding bone. Set the ChefAlarm’s high alarm to 157°F (69°C). (See our post on Proper Probe Placement.)
➤ Optional: Dual Temperature Tracking Using Smoke™: After the breast meat’s probe is secured and its alarm set, place a Waterproof Needle Probe into the thickest part of the thigh laterally and set its high alarm to 170°F (77°C). (See our post on White vs. Dark Turkey Cooking Methods)
8. Cook until the breast meat’s internal temperature reaches 157°F (69°C) (about 3 to 3-1/2 hours longer). Pull the turkey from the oven when the ChefAlarm’s (or Smoke’s) high alarm sounds, and spot-check the breasts and thighs (the dark meat should be about 170°F [77°C]) in multiple areas with a Thermapen.
How to Properly Spot-Check Your Turkey’s Temperature
- When spot-checking with an instant read thermometer like a Thermapen, probe the meat from the top going past the thermal center, then pulling back up slowly. You will be able to see the temperature gradients from edge to edge in the meat. The lowest temperature found after multiple spot-checks is what you’re looking for.
- If a lower temperature than 157°F (69°C) is found, replace the ChefAlarm’s probe to read that lowest temperature area and return to the oven to cook until it reaches 157°F (69°C).
9. When the turkey’s lowest temperature is verified at 157°F (69°C), pull from the oven and allow it to rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
➤ Track the Carryover: During the rest, the turkey’s internal temperature will continue to rise (carryover cooking).
To track this temperature increase, leave the ChefAlarm or Smoke probe in the breast meat during the rest and set a timer for 30 minutes (the ChefAlarm has a timer built in).
When the timer’s alarm sounds, the highest and lowest temperatures reached during the rest will be recorded as the ChefAlarm or Smoke‘s Max/Min reading, and you can be certain that your turkey has reached a safe temperature.
The internal temperature will rise by about 10°F (5°C) during the rest (arriving at a food safe temperature of at least 165°F [74°C]).
10. Carve, serve, and enjoy.
Sure you can safely cook a frozen whole turkey, but how does it taste? Some of our willing taste-testing subjects said it was the best turkey they’d ever had! It was moist and flavorful, with beautifully golden-brown skin. A winning method you may even want to plan!
Cooking a completely frozen whole turkey seems to defy reason, but it really works.
For more turkey tips check out our series, Turkey: 5 Things You Need to Know.