Thawing A Turkey In A Cooler (In 3 Simple Steps)

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Wondering if you can thaw your turkey in a cooler? Proper turkey thawing takes time and space!

As the average-size turkey is around 15 pounds but can reach up to 30! There are a few techniques and tips for defrosting thoroughly. One of these methods is doing so in a well-insulated cooler.

Let’s explore how this is done safely, avoiding any harmful bacteria. And starting your preferred cooking method for the entire family.

How To Thaw Turkey In A Cooler 

When defrosting any type of meat, but especially a large turkey… It is important to follow basic food safety procedures. Below you’ll see the exact steps to thawing your turkey in a cooler.

Step 1 – Clean & Prepare The Cooler

Make sure your cooler is cleaned from previous use.

I recommend having a specific cooler that you only use for defrosting meat. This lowers the chance of contamination.

When your cooler is cleaned and ready you can add the frozen turkey.

Step 2 – Put In Your Turkey & Fill it With Water

  • Put the turkey in the bottom of the cooler.
  • Fill up with cold tap water halfway.

Step 3 – Insert Temperature Probes, Seal The Cooler & Monitor Temp

  • Place a temperature probe in the water, away from the turkey.
  • Stick a temperature probe at the top of the cooler, out of the water.
  • Close the cooler lid.
  • Monitor the cooler and water temperatures.
  • If the probes go above 40°F then add a bit of ice to drop it back down. 
  • If this happens frequently then see below for defrosting in a refrigerator. 

The ‘Danger Zone’ – Check For Food Safety!

An important one to remember is the temperature range of food-borne bacteria multiplies. Do not leave any raw or thawing meat at temps between 40°F – 140°F for longer than 60 minutes. 

Read until the end for further recommendations made by food safety experts.

Items Required

  • A good quality cooler at least double the turkey pounds of weight (we are using the Coleman Xtreme Cooler)
  • Cold water
  • Ice packs
  • Temperature probes

Do I Have To Change The Water?

Only change or add ice water if the temperature rises above 40°F. Remember that this is the start of the danger zone for 

Can I Use Hot Tap Water?

Not. This will elevate the temperature for bacteria growth and cause uneven thawing. 

Do I Keep Turkey In The Original Packaging?

Yes! Keep it secured as you don’t want any contamination. Or end up with soggy meat!

How To Work Out The Rate Of Defrosting In The Cooler

The average cooler temperature when we tried was 30°F. At this temp, the turkey will thaw at a rate of 6-10 pounds of bird every 24 hours.

Let’s say you have an 11-pound turkey. It would take 1 and a half days of thawing to defrost completely.

Why Would I Need To Thaw A Frozen Turkey In A Cooler?

Below are some advantages and disadvantages of defrosting in a cooler:

The Benefits Of This Method 

  • Enough space to fit a large turkey if your refrigerator is full.
  • Mobile if away from a refrigerator.
  • Coolers are inexpensive.
  • If its Christmas or Thanksgiving you might have many other dishes in your fridge, so you don’t want a turkey taking up room. If your wondering when to start defrosting your turkey before Christmas or Thanksgiving you can see more information here.

Are There Any Disadvantages?

Having to monitor and adjust temperatures over a long period. (This can happen with a bad-quality cooler).

The Physical Signs To Tell If My Delicious Turkey Has Thawed

A frozen bird will be solid to the touch. And (obviously) be very cold to the touch.

The packaging and raw turkey flesh may still have ice crystals on them. But what if your turkey isn’t showing these signs and you want to be sure?

The turkey flesh should have a little bounce to the touch. A good tip is to try and move the wings to judge the wiggle room. They will move freely and without any sound. This is a good indication you no longer have frozen meat.

Use A Food Thermometer For An Accurate Reading 

The physical signs are a great start. But I will always recommend confirming with a food thermometer. They aren’t just for checking cooked foods!

Using a calibrated instant-read thermometer will give you the exact temperature. This is the most precise and accurate way of knowing if your turkey has thawed.

What Reading Is A Safe Internal Temperature For A Thawed Turkey?

The safe temperature for your turkey should be 32°F – 39°F. Insert the probe into the middle of the breast meat and thigh.

Note: Sticking your probe in raw meat will cause contamination and the risk of a foodborne illness.

Do not forget to clean it straight after using it.

What Other Turkey Thawing Methods Are There?

Defrosting In A Refrigerator

Defrosting your turkey in your fridge is the safest and easiest way.

But like I said! The only hard part is it being able to fit…

If you find that your cooler is not able to keep temp, then you will need to move it.

Make Sure You Always Keep Turkey In Its Original Packaging! 

Ensure you still keep the turkey packaged if you choose this method. This is down to food safety, and convenience and can affect the cooked meat.

The low moisture in the fridge can dry out the uncooked meat. It will also stop the raw meat juices from contaminating anything else! 

Basic Food Saftey Tips

  • Pay attention and wash any surfaces or utensils you have used when handling raw meat.
  • Don’t leave raw or cooked meat in the danger zone for longer than 60 minutes.
  • Cook the thawed meat within 2 days.
  • Use a meat thermometer to accurately measure temperatures.

Smoke On!


Hi, I’m Charlie, I have been meat-smoking and grilling for the past 15 years. I have an array of different smokers, thermometers, and have a love for finding the right wood and charcoal combo My favourite recipes are my EXTRA CRISPY smoked pork belly, juicy pulled pork, smoked brisket, duck poppers, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill).

I loves sharing his tips with beginners, helping them navigate the world of smoking. I find it’s not just about cooking; it’s a quest for that perfect smoky flavor.

You will usually find me playing with the kids, perfecting my brisket bark, or sipping beers with boys around the fire. Can’t wait to share all my delicious smoking and grilling recipes with you!

You can read more about me on our About Us page.

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