Question: I’m defrosting a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Once it is completely thawed, how long can I safely keep the thawed turkey in the fridge before cooking it?
Answer: It depends on how you’re thawing it.
If you’re defrosting the turkey in the fridge, you can safely keep it refrigerated for an additional one or two days after it’s fully thawed, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Another bonus of thawing your turkey in the refrigerator: If you happen to have a last-minute change in plans, you can refreeze the raw turkey within that same timeframe.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to thaw the turkey in cold water (see here for details on how to do this), the USDA advises that you cook it immediately. The same goes for a turkey that you’re planning to defrost in the microwave.
That’s because with either of those methods, the turkey could at least temporarily warm up to a temperature higher than 40°F. At that point, harmful bacteria can begin to multiply rapidly and prompt cooking is required to destroy it.
One final thing to keep in mind: You should never thaw a turkey on the counter or in hot water. The USDA cautions that it’s dangerous to eat any meat or poultry that’s been thawed under those two methods, as the outer layer of the food would have been allowed to sit between the bacteria-breeding temperatures of 40° F and 140° F for far too long to be safe.