Thawing your meat out safely is easy when you use the right methods. There are three different fast and safe methods you can use to thaw out meat I will explain in this FAQ.
Before we look at the methods, it’s important to look at why some methods of thawing meat are unsafe so you can avoid them.
After looking at the methods, I’ll answer some common questions about thawing meat.
Thawing Meat and Bacteria
The main risk of thawing meat is the potential growth of bacteria. If bacteria such as Salmonella or E. Coli are given the right environment they will rapidly multiply and can cause serious food poisoning.
The “Danger Zone” is the temperature range where bacteria rapidly multiply. Keeping meat (or any other food) in this temperature range for an extended period of time can lead to contamination and food poisoning.
The Danger Zone temperature range is between 40°F – 140°F (5°C – 60°C) according to the FSIS.
If you keep any thawing meat in this temperature range, the number of bacteria will double in less than 20 minutes.
This is also why your refrigerator should be set to a temperature below 40°F / 5°C. Keeping meat in a fridge below this temperature keeps it out of the Danger Zone.
Why you should never defrost meat at room temperature
You should never defrost meat at room temperature. The slow increase in temperature as your meat thaws gives bacteria plenty of time to multiply while in the Danger Zone.
If you thaw your meat by placing it on a plate in your kitchen, you’ll notice that the surface of the meat thaws quick compared to the center.
By the time the middle of the meat has thawed, the surface will have spent a lot of time within the Danger Zone.
Leaving meat out to thaw too long creates a serious risk to your health. The total bacteria on the surface of the meat will double every 20 minutes, so leaving the meat out too long to thaw is a major issue.
While it’s possible to kill all bacteria off by cooking at a high enough temperature, thawing meat at room temperature adds unnecessary risk to your food.
“But I’ve been thawing meat at room temperature for years without any problems”
If you question somebody who thaws meat at room temperature, they’ll likely tell you that there’s nothing wrong with it and people who worry about bacteria need to toughen up.
The truth is that just because a person has been doing something for years without a problem, it doesn’t mean it’s a good practice.
If that person mistakenly undercooks one meal, they could end up in the hospital (or worse). The people who have been killed by their poor food practices aren’t around to tell you why you should be careful.
The more you question cooking methods and practices, the more you will realize that most people have no idea why they do the things they do.
The key point to remember when thawing meat is that you want to minimize the time that the meat spends within the Danger Zone. The below methods are the best ways you can minimize the risk in thawing meat.
Fast Method 1: Microwave Defrost
It should be no surprise that the fastest way of defrosting meat is to use a microwave’s defrost setting.
All modern microwaves should have a defrost setting that allows you to set the total weight of the meat you want to defrost. Once you enter the weight, the microwave will work out the ideal settings to defrost it as quickly as possible.
Important: the microwave rapidly defrosts the meat, which will likely bring parts of it up to the Danger Zone. To prevent bacteria from building up after thawing, make sure you immediately cook it.
Don’t use your microwave to defrost your meat, then let it sit for an hour or two at room temperature. Make sure you time the defrost so you can immediately cook it afterward.
Do not let it sit at room temperature after defrosting.
Fast Method 2: Cold Water Thawing
Any thawing method you use should try to avoid keeping the meat in the Danger Zone. Cold water thawing is a fast way to thaw meat while completely avoiding bringing your meat within the Danger Zone.
Cold water thawing works best with smaller cuts of meat such as ground beef, steak, or chicken pieces. It’s not as effective for large roasts or a while chicken and one of the other methods are better suited.
Step 1: Seal the meat in zip-lock bags
While you could simply submerge the meat into a bowl of cold water, it’s not recommended. Not only will the meat absorb water and possibly become water-logged, but it may also introduce bacteria to the meat.
If your meat’s packaging is vacuum-sealed as shown below, then you can simply submerge the entire packaging in the water.
The key point is that you don’t want any air in the packaging or in the zip-lock bag. Any air will slow the thawing process significantly.
If you slowly submerge your bag before sealing it, you can remove all of the air (don’t let the water go into the bag) and seal it.
Make sure the bag or packaging you use is completely leak-proof to avoid external contamination or water-logging.
Step 2: Submerge the meat in cold water
Once your meat is packaged up, submerge it into a big bowl of cold water.
Make sure the entire package is completely submerged to get the best results. You may need to add a bowl with weight on top to keep everything below the surface.
Why cold water?
You might think that using warm or hot water will speed the process up. The problem with using warm or hot water is that it will quickly heat up the surface of the meat and keep it within the Danger Zone the entire time it is submerged. Not good.
The only time warm or hot water can be considered is when you’re thawing thin cuts of meat. Thin cuts will thaw quickly (less than 10 minutes), which will limit the time spent in the Danger Zone. As long as you immediately cook the meat at a suitable temperature after thawing, it will be okay.
Cold water submersion is very effective at quickly defrosting meat because water is an excellent conductor when compared to air. Imagine sitting in a hot sauna vs water at the same temperature. You might be able to withstand the hot air in a sauna, but the same temperature water would severely burn you in seconds.
Step 3: Stir the Water Every 5-10 Minutes
As the bowl of cold water starts to thaw the meat, it will develop a cold barrier against the meat packaging. This barrier forms when the water is left untouched.
Stirring the water will disturb the barrier and speed up the thawing process. It’s okay if you’re not able to regularly stir the water, it just helps speed up the process.
Step 4: Replace the water every 30 minutes
If you’re thawing a lot of meat or large pieces, it will take longer to thaw. As the meat thaws, it cools the water down towards its freezing point. This slows the thawing process down.
Replacing the water every 30 minutes or so will speed up the thawing process. This will prevent the water in the bowl from getting too cold and slowing down the thawing process.
Method 3: Cooking Frozen Meat
The last method is technically the fastest way to thaw meat because cooking frozen meat will rapidly thaw it.
Cooking frozen meat is perfectly fine and can actually produce better results in some situations.
For example, steak typically tastes better and achieves a better result when you cook it from a frozen state instead of thawing it out first. You’ll likely achieve a better sear, the steak will retain more moisture, and it tends to taste better. I was skeptical until I tested it and saw how much of a difference it made.
The rule of thumb is that when cooking frozen meat, it will take 50% longer to cook through.
So to use this method, all you need to do is make sure that you allow more time for the meat to cook throughout and hit the required temperature in the center.
If you want to cook from frozen, here is a quick overview of the minimum temperature you should aim for:
- Beef, Pork, Lamb: 145°F
- Ground Beef: 160°F
- Chicken: 165°F
- Ham: 165°F
If you cook from frozen and properly reach the correct temperature in the center of the meat, you will have minimized the chances of any bacteria growing and surviving.
foolproof method: Overnight in Refrigerator
While the above methods can thaw meat fast, the easiest and most foolproof way is to let meat thaw overnight in your refrigerator.
This is a foolproof method because the meat will never enter the Danger Zone unless you have your fridge set to above 40°F / 5°C.
Even if you don’t have time to use this method today to thaw your meat, remember it for the next time you want to thaw something. Take it out of your freezer the day before and place it in your fridge.
The temperature in the fridge will gradually thaw the meat and keep it in a safe range.
To speed up this process, you can also combine it with the cold water thawing method. Seal the meat in a bag or vacuum-sealed packaging and place it in a bowl of water. Place that bowl in the fridge to thaw overnight.
As explained earlier, the meat will thaw faster in water than air, so thawing your meat in water while in the fridge is far more effective than merely placing the meat in the fridge.
Thawing Meat FAQs
Can I defrost meat in water without a bag?
While it is possible to defrost meat in water without a bag, it isn’t recommended. The problem is that the meat will absorb some of the water and will likely become waterlogged.
The last thing you want to do with your expensive cut of meat is to ruin it by waterlogging it during thawing.
Can I defrost chicken in hot water?
We need to be extra careful when defrosting chicken compared to other meats. While it is possible to defrost chicken in hot water, it isn’t recommended. Using a cold water thaw as explained above is far safer than defrosting chicken in hot water.
The hot water can quickly bring parts of the chicken into the Danger Zone, which can quickly become a serious problem with chicken. Using a cold water thaw or thawing chicken in the fridge will keep it out of the Danger Zone.
How to defrost steak fast without ruining it?
If you are short on time, the best way to defrost a steak fast without ruining it is to use the cold water method. Make sure the steak is sealed in a leak-proof bag to prevent water from getting into the steak. Letting your steak absorb water will ruin it.
If you have more time available, combine the cold water method with a fridge. Place the bowl of water and sealed steak in the fridge to defrost. This method will take longer, but it will ensure the steak never reaches the Danger Zone.
You may not want to defrost your steak at all. As explained next, cooking frozen steak can produce some amazing results. If you’re short on time, you may want to try cooking frozen steak.
Can you cook frozen steak?
You can definitely cook frozen steak. In fact, many people feel that cooking a frozen steak is the best way to cook steak. You’re likely to find that cooking a frozen steak gives you a tastier and juicier result.
Cooking frozen steak can prevent overcooking the surface, prevents moisture loss and gives a more even cook throughout when compared to cooking a thawed steak.
How long can beef sit out at room temperature?
The less time beef is left to sit at room temperature the better. The maximum time you should allow it sit at room temperature should be no more than two hours.
When left at room temperature, the number of bacteria will double roughly every 20 minutes. This means you will have 8x the total bacteria after one hour and 64x the bacteria after two hours. At two hours and twenty minutes, this increases to 128x the total bacteria. Another 20 minutes and you’ll have 256x the total bacteria.
It should be clear from the above example why you should avoid keeping beef at room temperature for an extended time.
I left a frozen chicken out overnight to thaw. What do I do now?
If you left the chicken out to thaw overnight in the middle of summer and it’s warm to touch in the morning, you’re asking for trouble if you try to cook it. Even if you cook it at the correct temperature, you may still become sick due to the toxins the bacteria produce.
If the chicken is still cold in the morning, the risk of getting an illness from it is reduced, but still a concern.
Even if you don’t get sick from it this time (or people tell you they always do this), it doesn’t mean this is a safe thing to do.
Is it okay to soak meat in water overnight?
While the water thawing method is incredibly safe and effective, it isn’t safe when left overnight. The problem is that the water will eventually reach room temperature along with the meat.
So even if you start off with cold water, in the morning you might end up with meat that has become a thriving environment for bacteria that will double in number every 20 minutes.
It’s also not recommended to soak meat directly in water. Use a vacuum-sealed bag or a zip-lock bag to separate the meat from the water. You don’t want to ruin your meat by waterlogging it.