How to Defrost Meat Safely and Quickly

The best ways to thaw frozen meat so you can get dinner on the table!

a raw steak on butcher paper
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It's always a smart idea to keep your freezer stocked with frozen chicken breasts and sausages (hello, easy weeknight chicken dinners), well-marbled steaks and all the ground beef and turkey you can fit for homemade meatballs or burger recipes. And if you know how to defrost meat fast (and safely, too!), you can achieve a home-cooked meal on a weeknight in very little time.

But what if you need to defrost steak in a hurry? What if that chicken breast didn’t completely thaw overnight? What if you’re just really hungry? No worries, there are a few methods to speed up the process and defrost any cut of meat quickly. Here are answers to all your questions about how to defrost meat.

What's the safest way to defrost meat?

The absolute best method for defrosting meat safely is overnight in the refrigerator until it is completely thawed. Once thawed, ground meat, poultry, and seafood can keep well in the refrigerator for an extra day or two, while red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and steak) stays good for three to five more days. While opting to defrost meat in the refrigerator does require advance planning, it gives you the extra bonus of being able to refreeze it safely (though you may experience some loss of quality).

Can you defrost meat in cold water?

In just about an hour’s time, this method will quickly and properly defrost meat without a microwave, though it does require you to be more hands-on. Place your frozen cut of meat in a resealable plastic bag, squeezing out as much air as possible. Fill a large bowl with cold water and submerge the bag in the water. Change the water every 30 minutes to ensure that it stays cold and continues to thaw the meat. Smaller cuts of meat, poultry or seafood (about a pound) can thaw in an hour or less, larger quantities (three to four pounds) may take two to three hours. Estimate about 30 minutes per pound for thawing whole frozen turkeys. We don’t recommend refreezing that meat once it’s been thawed, unless you cook it first. Tip: Use your thawed meat to make big batches of soup and stew recipes!

What's the fastest way to defrost meat?

Learn how to defrost meat in the microwave and you can have prepped protein in under 10 minutes — really. This method works best for smaller cuts of meat that will be cooked all the way through after thawing, like chicken breast for a chicken stir-fry or ground beef for tacos. Read up on your microwave’s instruction manual to learn the best way to defrost a specific cut of meat according to the microwave’s settings. If your microwave doesn’t have a “defrost” setting, set it at a lower power level and run in short bursts until the meat is thawed. Be careful though, cooking at too high a heat or for too long can actually cook the meat instead of defrosting. No matter what, as soon as you’re done thawing, cook the meat right away.

Is it ever OK to cook frozen meat?

When you’re really in a pinch, you don’t have to thaw frozen meat before cooking. Believe it or not, it’s safe to cook fresh-out-of-the-freezer blocks of ground turkey, solid cuts of chicken, and bricks of ice-cold steak. The meat will take longer to cook (about 50 percent more time), and it’s not ideal for achieving golden-crispy skin or a perfect sear. However, it’s an option that’s always there for you — even when perfectly thawed protein isn’t.

Just avoid cooking frozen meat in the slow cooker — it can spend too much time thawing and become unsafe to eat.

Is it OK to thaw meat on the counter?

While there are sources that claim you can thaw frozen meat in hot water or simply leaving it out on the counter, the USDA says this isn’t safe. Any piece of thawed meat should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. If the meat begins to thaw and it becomes warmer than 40 °F, bacteria that may have been present before freezing may start to multiply.

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