The Danger Zone
Frozen and refrigerated food that are going to be cooked before eating should be kept out of the danger zone, which is between 40 and 140°F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly. This includes defrosting/thawing time.
As a result, you should NEVER thaw meat at room temperature. The problem is that the outer layer of meat is in the danger zone for a long time while the center may still be frozen. There are other, faster methods of thawing meat that are safe. Keep reading.
The only time it is safe to thaw something on the counter at room temperature is if it will not be cooked before eating, like a cheesecake.
Thawing and surface area
Surface area is important when trying to thaw something quickly. In all thawing methods, smaller pieces will thaw faster than large pieces. Makes sense, right? If you have steaks to thaw and they are frozen together in a block, separate them first for better results.
Refrigerator Thawing – best, slowest
The best method of thawing to preserve the flavor and texture of your food is thawing it in the refrigerator. This requires planning ahead - it may take anywhere from a few hours to a day or more, depending on the cut of your meat. The meat never enters the danger zone and stays between 32 and 40°F the entire time.
- Planning ahead is the key because a large frozen turkey requires at least 24 hours for every 5 pounds.
- Small amounts of frozen food — such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts — require a full day to thaw
- Food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 °F than one set at 40 °F.
- After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, seafood, should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before cooking.
- Red meat cuts (such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks) should remain safe and good quality 3 to 5 days.
- Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.
Cold Water Thawing – 2nd best, very fast
This is the method that is most often recommended after the refrigerator method. It’s easy, fast, and safe. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. The package ideally will be tight-fitting to the food for the best conduction of heat (if there are large air pockets in the packaging, this may not be the right package or the right method).
- This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention.
- The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the meat tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product.
- The bag should be submerged in a bowl in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw OR allowing a trickle of cold water to run into the bowl to circulate the water.
- Small packages of meat, poultry or seafood — about a pound — may thaw in 1 hour or less.
- A 3-to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound.
- Once thawed food must be cooked immediately. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.
Hot Water Thawing – Unsafe!
You might think from the previous example, if cold water thawing is so fast, hot water thawing must be faster, right?
The problem with this method is that your food will enter the danger zone almost immediately and bacteria will have a good chance to multiply before you ever get to cooking. Do not thaw your food in hot water, even if you are going to cook it right away.
Microwave Thawing – Potential loss of quality, very fast
- After thawing in the microwave, always cook immediately, whether microwave cooking, by conventional oven, or grilling.
- Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and, indeed, the food may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.
- Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.
Cooking from frozen – always acceptable
You can always cook your food straight from frozen. Just be sure the finished product reaches a safe internal temperature before you eat. When deep frying, be aware that any ice crystals on the food will boil and cause an extremely violent reaction when the frozen food is placed into hot oil. You should always defrost food and ensure it is dry before placing in hot oil.
Doesn’t cooking kill any bacteria/bad stuff produced during the thaw?
Short answer: No. Cooking may kill bacteria, but it will not destroy any spores or waste products produced by the bacteria while it was thawing. These spores and/or waste products can still make you sick.
How long do I have to cook thawed meat?
If the meat was thawed in the refrigerator, you have some time before it must be cooked: a day or two for poultry and 3 to 5 days for red meat.
Refreezing thawed, but uncooked meat
The only situation that you can refreeze thawed meat is if it was thawed in the refrigerator. All other thawing methods require you to cook the meat after thawing.
- Note that refreezing thawed meat will result in a degradation of quality.
Refreezing cooked meat
Refreezing cooked meat is fine, however you may experience degradation of quality once the meat is reheated.