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Safely Thawing a Frozen Turkey in a Cooler

Discussion in 'Poultry' started by noboundaries, May 20, 2017.

  1. noboundaries

    noboundaries Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Until Thursday, 5/18/17, I had three 18 lb turkeys in the freezer purchased last Thanksgiving or Christmas.  My wife and I love smoked turkey, but thawing and brining them safely is always a concern.  As summer approaches, even more so.  We don't have an extra refrigerator, and the refrigerator we use doesn't have room to thaw an 18 lb bird.  Consequently, I often use the sink to water thaw my turkeys.  30 minutes per pound and they are thawed.  Unfortunately, it occupies the sink all day.  Then I brine them in a large 20 quart stainless steel pot I have, wrapped in towels and put in the garage.  As summer nears, that really doesn't work too well.  I needed a better way. 

    I often use one of my Coleman Xtreme coolers as an extra refrigerator.  The smaller 28 quart Xtreme cooler is perfect for an 18-20 lb bird or smaller, and will keep iced food in the safety zone (less than 40°F) for at least three days.  The Coleman Xtreme coolers are not expensive at all ($20-$35 for the 28 quart).  They are often on sale this time of the year. 

    Knowing I needed to start smoking my turkeys, I wanted to find a way to thaw and brine the turkeys with as little hassle as possible.  Coolers to the rescue!  I don't like putting raw meat directly in a cooler that I use for other things too, so what follows is simple, easily cleaned up, and helps prevent contamination.  

    How to Thaw in a Cooler:

    1.  Put a frozen 18 lb turkey in the 28 quart cooler.  Leave it in the original vacuum wrapping. 

    2.  Cover with cold water, close cooler, and walk away.  If using a regular cooler, not an Xtreme cooler, figure 30 minutes per pound to thaw.  If using an Xtreme cooler, triple that.

    3.  When the required time is up, check the temperature of the water close to the bird, but not touching.  It should be 34-39°F.  A thawed bird will feel spongy to the touch.  If not thawed, you can feel hardness below the skin. 

    4.  When the bird is thawed, leave the cold water in the cooler. 

    How to Prep Turkey for Bag Brining in a Cooler:

    1.  Prepare your favorite brine.  If using an "enhanced" bird, one that has been pre-brined, cut the salt in your brine in half or the bird will be too salty.  

    2.  Put a cookie sheet on the counter, the kind with a 1/2" to 1" lip around the edges to catch liquid and brine. Place the thawed bird on the cookie sheet.  Remove the original turkey wrapping and discard.

    3.  Remove the neck from the main cavity and the internal organ bag from the neck cavity.  Save or discard, depending on your preference (I smoke the neck and use the organs in gravy).

    4.  Inject your favorite brine recipe into the breast of the bird.

    5.  Using a Ziplock XL Storage bag (10 gallon size, $5.99 for four bags at Amazon as an add-on item, it is food-safe), slip the turkey into the bag like putting a pillow into a pillow case.  Turn the bird so it is breast side down in the bag.

    6.  Lower the open bag into the cold water in the cooler, but don't allow any of the water to get into the bag.  Pour the brine into the bag.  Seal the bag, letting the water squeeze as much air as possible out of the bag.  Double check that it is sealed (experience talking).  Dump some ice into the cooler. 

    7.  Let brine for 12-24 hours.  Check occasionally for ice still present in the water.  Add more if needed.

    8.  After brining period, discard water, brine, and Ziplock brining bag.  Prep bird for the smoker.  Thoroughly clean the cooler.

    My wife HATES handing raw meat, so what I described above can easily be done by one person.  One of the turkeys is brining as I speak.  Depending what we have to do this weekend, it will either be smoked today or tomorrow. 

    For new folks, it is NEVER too early to practice for Thanksgiving! 

    Have a great weekend everyone!


    Coleman Xtreme Cooler

    Thawed turkey into water in Ziplock XL bag, brine added, bag sealed, and ice added.

    After 20 hours, ice still present. 

    Water temp after brining 20 hours in an Xtreme cooler.  I'll add more ice just for safety sake after my wife wakes up. 

    Last edited: May 20, 2017
    sundown farms and Bearcarver like this.
  2. chef jimmyj

    chef jimmyj Epic Pitmaster Staff Member Moderator Group Lead OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    That will work. Without the cooler, changing out the water every 30 minutes would make for a long night...JJ
  3. biaviian

    biaviian Smoking Fanatic OTBS Member

    I only tried turkey one time.  I must have made a huge mistake with grease because there was a fire inside my MES.  Thankfully the smoker was not harmed.  I need to give it another go.
  4. noboundaries

    noboundaries Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Turkey is on the smoker. Spatchcocked today instead of turkey cannon. 350F chamber temp. Royal Oak lump and hickory.
    Last edited: May 20, 2017
  5. noboundaries

    noboundaries Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Turkey throws off a lot of fat from the skin being rendered. A drip pan is helpful.
  6. biaviian

    biaviian Smoking Fanatic OTBS Member

    I had one, but there was a heavy buildup of charred grease (like over an inch thick) on the door, so I don't think it was the pan.  It still baffles me as to what went wrong.  It looked like the inside of a burnt house with a lot of thick burnt residue.  
  7. noboundaries

    noboundaries Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    And just to bring this to a tasty close, a pic of the turkey an hour in on the WSM, and just before I took it off when the IT was 162F in the breast. It was juicy and delicious! 

    An hour in on the WSM.

    Ready to pull of the WSM at 162F IT in the breast. 

    The brine recipe I use:

    Orange Juice Poultry Brine

    This was a brine I used for injecting the breast meat prior to brining.  It was a takeoff of Alton Brown's OJ brine.  The results were AMAZING!  More than once I've heard people say "this is the best chicken/turkey I've eaten in my life." 

    Note:  I initially warmed the ingredients to dissolve the solids.  What I found that works better is blending the brine a large capacity blender.  Blending worked MUCH better than putting it on the stove.

    Ziplock "Large" 3 gallon storage bags, which are food safe, are great to use as brining bags for two 6 lbs chickens or one 12 lb turkey.  For larger turkeys use the Ziplock XL 10 gallon storage bags.  Discard the bag after use.

    1/2 tsp Prague #1 Pink Salt (this gives the meat a slight ham flavor that just works so beautifully with smoked chicken and turkey)
    1/2 cup kosher salt
    1 Tbs onion powder
    1  Tbs garlic powder
    1 tsp black pepper
    1 cup dark brown sugar or inexpensive maple syrup
    1 can frozen orange juice
    3 cans water
    1/4 cup lemon juice
    1/4 cup lime juice
    ice as necessary to chill brine thoroughly.
    2 quarts water


    1. In a large capacity blender mix all the brine ingredients except the ice and the last quart of water.  Blend until well blended and the solids have dissolved. Add some ice to chill thoroughly.  The brine should be cold before injecting or brining the turkey/chicken.  If you don't want to use a blender, just mix the ingredients in the Dutch Oven, stir over low heat until well blended, then add the ice.

    2. Inject the breast.  Put the poultry i the bag.  Put the bag in the water filled cooler.  Pour the remaining brine, last quart of water, and some ice over the poultry.   Add ice to the cooler.  Seal and brine for 12 to 24 hours in the refrigerator or a cooler packed with ice jugs or cold water.  Brining for more than 24 hours is not recommended but I've done it up to 48 hours with no adverse effects. This process will produce a tender, juicy final product because the salt in the brine changes the protein structure of the meat.

    3. After brining, drain the pan or brining bag really well and discard the brine. Dry the poultry again then prep for smoking.
    Last edited: May 20, 2017
  8. Noboundaries - Thanks for sharing how you deal with the big bird. I have been trying to perfect the cooler-thaw scenario and your parameters will be very helpful. I too only have one full-size refrigerator and momma is not allowing a turkey to take up space in her little wine cooler. A point for taking the time to post your process.
  9. noboundaries

    noboundaries Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Tom, you are very welcome.  Happy to help and thanks for the point!
  10. Bearcarver

    Bearcarver SMF Hall of Fame Pitmaster Group Lead OTBS Member

    Beautiful Bird !!! [​IMG]

    And Awesome Step by Step Too!! [​IMG]---[​IMG]

    Nice Job!! [​IMG]

  11. noboundaries

    noboundaries Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Thanks Bear!  Always appreciate the kind words and the point!  I know it is a little early for turkey for most folks, but it is NEVER too early for new folks to practice for a successful Thanksgiving smoked turkey!