Did you forget to take the meat out of the freezer for dinner? When you need to thaw meat quickly, there are a few options. In about an hour, smaller cuts of meat can defrost in cold water, while a microwave makes the process even faster. You can also safely cook frozen meat. With any of these methods, a few tips and tricks will ensure the meat remains safe to eat.
Though it may be too late for tonight's dinner, it's good to remember that the safest way to thaw meat is in the refrigerator. In an ideal world, everyone would plan ahead and set tomorrow's dinner in the fridge overnight. The constant temperature allows the meat to defrost slowly and evenly, producing a better texture and taste when cooked. The cold also keeps it out of the "danger zone" for bacterial growth (between 40 F and 140 F).
Depending on the size of the meat you need to thaw, this method may take a full day or longer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) food safety guidelines state that a whole turkey requires a full day for every 5 pounds, while 1 pound of ground beef typically thaws in one day. Also, keep in mind that food stored in a chest freezer may take longer to thaw.
Cold Water Thawing Method
When you need food on the table tonight and don't have or want to use a microwave, the cold water approach is the best option. This method works best for small cuts of meat such as steaks, chicken breasts, ground beef, pork loin, etc. It's not effective for whole birds and large roasts.
- Remove the meat from its packaging, and place it in a clean plastic sealable bag.
- Check the bag for leaks and press out as much air as possible before sealing—excess air will cause the bag to float, and the meat will not thaw as quickly.
- Submerge the bag in a bowl of cold water.
- Change the water every 30 minutes, until the meat has thawed.
One pound of meat will often thaw in 30 minutes and shouldn't take much more than an hour. To speed the process along, separate the individual pieces or cuts of meat as soon as they are thawed out enough to pull apart. If you are thawing more than a pound of meat, divide it up between multiple bowls of cold water, if possible.
Microwave Thawing Method
Use the defrost setting (50 percent power) on your microwave to thaw meat in a matter of minutes. Most microwaves allow you to enter how many pounds of meat you need to thaw and will automatically calculate the recommended defrost time. If your microwave does not have a defrost mode, use the lowest power setting and heat the meat in short increments until thawed.
When using this method, keep a close eye on things because defrosting can quickly cross over to cooking. You may need to interrupt the cycle to reposition the meat to get more even thawing.
Cooking Meat Without Thawing
If you have a whole turkey, chicken, ham, or roast that you need to get on the table posthaste, your best bet is to cook it from a frozen state. It's perfectly safe to cook frozen meat, but it will take about 50 percent longer. That's a pretty good deal when you consider that it typically takes two days to thaw out a 10-pound bird in the fridge.
Use a meat thermometer to determine when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature:
- Chicken: 165 F
- Turkey: 165 F
- Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb: 145 F
- Ground Meat: 160 F
- Cooked Ham: 140 F
- Uncooked Ham: 145 F
Do not cook frozen meat in a slow cooker. It thaws the meat too slowly and increases the chance of introducing bacteria, making it unsafe to eat.
Do Not Use These Thawing Methods
Never thaw your meat at room temperature or in a cool area such as outdoors, garage, or basement. Don't use hot water to thaw meat or leave defrosted meat at room temperature for more than two hours—refrigerate it immediately.
Bacteria that can cause food poisoning will begin to multiply on meat that is above refrigerator temperature. The exterior may reach the danger zone while the interior remains frozen. You don't want your meal or feast to result in misery, or even worse, so it's always best to practice safe thawing methods.