You can hardly wait. The juicy rib-eye steaks you picked up a few weeks ago have been sitting in your freezer, just waiting to be grilled. Tonight, you plan to fire up the barbeque and do just that.
But first, you’ve got to defrost the steaks. And you need to take special care: Some approaches to thawing food, like leaving it on the counter all day, are unsafe and can cause illness.
You’ve got 3 choices for safely thawing any type of food. Here’s what you need to know about each:
1. Refrigerator Thawing
This is certainly the easiest method for defrosting frozen food — just stick it in the fridge and wait until it’s thawed.
But you may be waiting longer than you thought. It usually takes an entire day to thaw even a small amount of frozen food, such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts. For large items, like a whole turkey or ham, it’ll take about 24 hours of defrosting time for every 5 pounds of food.
All that waiting does have a payoff, though. A major advantage of refrigerator thawing is that you don’t have to cook the defrosted food right away — especially helpful if you’re faced with a last-minute change in plans.
Poultry, fish and ground meat that’s been defrosted in the fridge can be kept for an additional 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator before cooking. Beef, pork, lamb or veal (roasts, steaks or chops) will keep refrigerated for another 3 to 5 days after thawing.
Another plus: If you decide not to cook the thawed food, you can safely refreeze it within these same time limits.
2. Cold Water Thawing
The upside to this approach is that it’s much faster than refrigerator thawing. The downside is that it requires a lot more attention on your behalf.
To thaw the food, submerge the bag in cold tap water. Never use hot water, as that can cause the outer layer of the food to heat up to a temperature where harmful bacteria begins to multiply. You’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes to ensure that it stays sufficiently cold.
Using this thawing method, small packages of frozen meat or poultry (about a pound) can defrost in one hour or less. For larger items, you should estimate about 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound of food.
Once the food is thawed completely, you’ll need to cook it immediately. If you have a change in plans, you can safely refreeze the food once you’ve cooked it thoroughly.
3. Microwave Thawing
The microwave, as you might expect, offers the speediest method of defrosting food.
Set your microwave to the "defrost" or "50 percent power" setting while thawing to ensure that the outer edges of the food don't become cooked while the remainder is still frozen. If you're defrosting a package of meat, poultry or fish that is in pieces, separate them as the food thaws.
If you use the microwave thawing method, you’ll need to cook the food immediately after it’s thawed. Once you’ve cooked the food, you can safely refreeze it if you like.
How Not to Thaw Food
It may be tempting to just leave your frozen food out on the cupboard to thaw — it's easy and it's fast. Don't do it. Nor should you thaw food in hot water.
The problem with both of those methods is that the outer layer of the food can sit between the bacteria-breeding temperatures of 40°F and 140 °F for far too long to be safe.
For more information on safe defrosting, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site.