Safe ways to defrost food

Defrosting food

When it's hot out, the chances of food spoilage increase. So we thought a short primer on safe ways to defrost food would not go amiss. Most people understand that defrosting food in the refrigerator, which usually takes at least overnight but keeps the food at a safe temperature, is the best way to proceed. And we hope that most people realize that just throwing a package of frozen meat on the counter in the morning, and leaving it there all day - which almost guarantees a long time at dangerous temperatures - is the worst way to proceed.

So what to do when the overnight defrost takes too long? Microwaving is an option, but it can be hit or miss, with one part of the package actually cooked while the rest remains cold. Here are three other, vetted approaches:

1).  Immerging in cold water, as recommended by the USDA: "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 cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small packages of meat, poultry or seafood - about a pound - may thaw in an hour or less. A 3-to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. If thawed completely, the food must be cooked immediately.  Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing."

We should note that other studies (by Alton Brown among others) recommend keeping a continuous stream of slowly running water over the food. The turbulence will speed up the process. This procedure is particularly effective with frozen shrimp (not in a bag). However, we've just never been comfortable with wasting water, so we prefer the USDA approach 

2) As long as the targeted food is thin, you can take advantage of the fact that frozen food lying on metal thaws more rapidly than food lying on a tabletop made of wood or plastic. Wood and plastic are poor conductors of heat, and they are very slow in transferring heat to the food from the surrounding air. Metals are far better conductors, so putting the food on a metal tray will speed up the process. However, this is only recommended for steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops, etc. that will defrost in under an hour, well within the safety time allowed (food should only be in the danger zone of between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for a maximum of 2 hours).

3) Cook from a frozen state. There's nothing wrong with this approach, although obviously you're adding cooking time, although not nearly the same amount of time it would take to defrost. And if you're worried that you won't get the proper amount of sear or caramelization on the food, remember there's nothing wrong with searing a steak or chicken breast after it's mostly cooked. In fact, with a thick steak, it's much better to cook the steak evenly through before searing; it avoids that grey band you'll often get. For further discussion on this point, check out this Lifehacker story.

Photo courtesy of Benchilada on Flickr



  • Probinson  on  7/30/2013 at 11:59 AM

    There is another way. See the June 6th New York Times article by Harold McGee. For some cuts of meat hot water can be used for a fast defrost.

  • Lindsay  on  7/30/2013 at 3:59 PM

    As of yet, however, this method hasn't been sanctioned as being safe - probably because there is some concern that people won't limited its usage to narrow cuts (steaks, chops, breast meat) but that some people will try to use it on roasts or turkey where it wouldn't be safe, as the required defrosting time would keep the temperature in the danger zone for too long. However, if you limit the size of the cuts, it will work. Just keep an eye on the time.

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