The first step: Don't leave frozen meat on the counter. While your grandmother may swear by this method of thawing out meat, it is not safe. (Odds are, she also never wore her seatbelt and her kids didn’t have car seats.)
However, for the scatter-brained (or busy!) among us, it's easy to forget to defrost meat until you're in the kitchen prepping for that evening's dinner. So what's the best way to thaw meat ASAP—without risking food poisoning? I asked some fellow dietitians for some tips.
Hold on, why can’t you thaw meat on the counter?
In short: Thawing meat on the counter is secretly really gross. “Never defrost meat on the kitchen counter, as this encourages bacterial growth that can make us sick," says Claire Rifkin, RDN, a NYC-based private practice dietitian.
According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, bacteria grows fastest between temperatures of 40-140 °F. These temps are the perfect environment for microbes to multiply, doubling in as many as 20 minutes. Meanwhile, typical room temperature is between 68 and 77 °F, which is right smack in the middle of that temperature “danger zone."
“If meat grows bacteria it can lead to foodborne illnesses," says Samantha Podob, RD, CDN, owner of Podob Nutrition. "Bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli, and campylobacter can cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and in severe cases, more health complications.” (There's a reason why my microbiology professor fondly referred to salmonella and E.coli as the two "bucket diseases.")
Sure, the whole package of frozen meat eventually thaws out while sitting out on the counter. But the outer surface of the meat thaws first, meaning it will sit in the temperature danger zone all day while the inside is still frozen—turning into a literal breeding ground for bacteria.
Doesn’t the bacteria cook off?
Not necessarily. Even if you use a meat thermometer religiously to cook food to safe temperatures, that doesn’t undo poor food-prep habits. “Cooking may kill bacteria, but it may not eliminate all toxins produced by them," Podob explains. "Some bacteria can produce heat-resistant spores or toxins that may remain even after cooking so it does not get ‘cooked out.'" So if you've left out your meat in the danger zone—allowing it to build up tons of bacteria—you're going to have a harder time killing those bacteria with heat.
How to thaw meat in a way that's actually safe
Technically, you can just cook stuff from frozen.“Cooking frozen meat safely is not only possible but is also a great strategy for reducing food waste and saving time,” Rifkin says. Keep in mind that your frozen food may take a bit longer to cook in your pressure cooker or oven—up to 50 percent longer, says the USDA. (It's also not ideal if you plan to cook in the slow cooker, which takes a while to get out of the temperature danger zone.)
However, if you really want to thaw things out before cooking (fair), these are the safest ways to do it.
1. Pop it in the refrigerator
This is the safest method, according to the USDA, but takes the most time. Be sure to stick your meat in the coldest parts of the refrigerator—like the meat drawer or in the back, rather than in the door—for optimal safety.
Plan to move items from the freezer to the fridge at least one day in advance. Bigger frozen items typically require a full day for every five pounds to thaw. A 25-pound frozen turkey, for example, would need at least five days of fridge time before it's thawed. (Noted for next Thanksgiving.)
2. Use cold water
Did you forget to move that those frozen cutlets to the fridge? We've all been there. Thankfully, using cold water is the next best option—and it's way faster than the fridge method. “The quickest method to thaw meat involves a cold-water bath," says Podob. "Submerge the food in cold water with a leak-proof package or plastic bag, utilizing a clean and sanitized food preparation sink or bowl, and ensuring the food temperature remains below 41°F to prevent entering the danger zone." The USDA recommends changing the water every 30 minutes or so as your food thaws.
Smaller items (a pound of food or less) can thaw in about an hour, while a 3-4 pound package will take longer. (Only use this method for smaller items that will thaw in two hours or less, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.) Once you thaw the food completely, cook it ASAP.
3. Defrost in the microwave
Not only can you whip up tasty meals in the microwave, but this handy appliance can also be used to defrost meat. Simply use the defrost button, or cook food at 20-30 percent power. Check every so often while it defrosts, rotating or flipping over food as needed.
The downside of this method is that microwaves reheat unevenly, per the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which means some spots might start to cook while others are still ice-cold. For that reason, microwave-thawed meat should be cooked immediately to avoid anything staying in the temperature danger zone for too long.
Other cooking safety tips for meat
Once the meat is thawed, whether in the fridge or by another method, the USDA suggests it should be cooked within 1-2 days for ground meats, poultry, and fish. You’ve got a little longer (3-5 days) with beef, pork, or lamb cuts like steaks, roasts, or chops.
Be sure your big appliances are doing their jobs, too. “Always maintain your refrigerator temperature between 36-40°F and your freezer at or below 0°F to inhibit bacterial growth," Rifkin says.
Last but not least, cook your meat to the proper temperatures. Steaks and roasts should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (checked at the thickest part of the cut). "Since bacteria on these cuts are typically confined to the surface, this temperature is sufficient to eliminate them," Rifkin says. "The surface, being in direct contact with the heat source, will reach a higher temperature than the interior."
Other kinds of meat need to be cooked to a higher temperature. Chicken, turkey, and other poultry should be cooked to 165°F. “For ground or skewered meats, an internal temperature of 160°F is necessary," Rifkin says. "In ground, minced, or chopped meats, the bacteria initially present on the surface are mixed throughout, necessitating a higher internal temperature to ensure all potential pathogens are destroyed." Yet another reason why a food thermometer is an essential kitchen tool.
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