While it is a widely propagated myth that turkey can be thawed on your kitchen counter, this could not be further from the truth. Turkey, in addition to other types of poultry, should generally be defrosted in a refrigerator, and never at room temperature.
Turkey, chicken and other varieties of poultry products are often contaminated by bacteria like salmonella. This bacteria is typically found inside the bird's stomach, as well as its feathers and skin. In fact, it is not uncommon for one contaminated bird to infect an entire processing line's worth of poultry products.
The harmful bacteria found in turkey can only be purged by excessively high temperatures and must always be cooked to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit or above. As the bacteria are highly likely to spread in temperatures of 45 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, it is imperative that you abstain from attempting to thaw turkey, or any other kind of poultry, at room temperature.
Safe Thawing Methods
Refrigerator thawing is arguably the safest method of defrosting turkey. Keep in mind, however, that it is also the most time consuming method. A typical Thanksgiving-sized turkey is liable to require between two and three days of defrosting time. That being the case, it's generally a good idea to plan turkey dinners at least a few days in advance. If time is an important factor, you can also thaw a turkey with the aid of a microwave oven. When utilizing this method of thawing, be aware that you will need to cook the turkey immediately after it has been successfully defrosted.