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What is the Best Way to Defrost Meat?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are a number of ways to defrost meat safely, including using cold water and the refrigerator. All will thaw the meat without allowing it to get too warm, as warmth can promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Cooking may not kill all of this bacteria, and their waste products can be harmful, so it is very important for cooks to remember that all meat must be kept cool while they are defrosting, even if the chef is in a hurry.

Meat should never be left out on the counter or defrosted in warm or hot water. These techniques foster the growth of bacteria, and meat that has been handled in this way should be discarded. The potential risk of foodborne illness is not worth the cost of the meat.

The best way to defrost meat is in the refrigerator. If a cook knows that she intends to use meat the next day, she should take it out of the freezer, leave it in the original packaging, and place it in a cool area of the refrigerator over a bowl or plate to catch the juices. This technique permits the meat to gently thaw without allowing it to get dangerously warm. Cooks should be aware when defrosting chicken with this technique that hemoglobin from the bones of young chickens may transfer to the meat, making it look bloody. This is not harmful, just unsightly. Especially large roasts and big birds like turkeys will need several days of refrigerator thawing.

If refrigerator defrosting is not an option because of time limitations, the next best choice is cold water thawing. The cook should package the meat in a waterproof bag and dunk it into a bowl filled with cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to keep the temperature constant. It takes between 30 minutes and an hour per pound (half kilogram) to thaw meat using this technique.

Microwaves can also be used to defrost meat in a pinch, although this technique can alter the color, flavor, or texture of the meat when it is cooked. The technique works best with smaller, thinner cuts of meat, rather than big chunks or roasts. In some cases, the meat can also simply be cooked while it is still frozen, especially if the cut is relatively thin. In these instances, cooks should use a meat thermometer to ensure that the center of the meat has been cooked properly.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By myharley — On Oct 22, 2012

@honeybees-- Have you ever tried cooking a frozen turkey? I tried this for the first time last year and was surprised at how well it turned out. The outside was nice and brown and the inside was moist and juicy.

I don't have the space to let a turkey thaw in my refrigerator for three days and I kept reading about how you could cook a frozen turkey. From now on this is the only way I will do it. If it hadn't turned out so well I would have second thoughts about it, but I think this is one of the best ways I have found to cook a turkey.

By honeybees — On Oct 21, 2012

Whenever I buy a big turkey for a holiday meal, I let it thaw in the refrigerator for at least three days. Depending on how big the bird is, sometimes it even needs longer than that. I am fortunate to have two refrigerators so I have the space to do this. If I only had one refrigerator this would be a problem because the turkey takes up so much room.

Leaving something this big to sit out on the counter to defrost would be way too dangerous because it takes so long. I am guilty of leaving a pound of hamburger out for a few hours to give it a head start on defrosting, but I wouldn't feel comfortable doing this with a large piece of meat.

By SarahSon — On Oct 20, 2012

I always have good intentions of defrosting my meat overnight in the refrigerator or putting it in the fridge before I leave for work in the morning. In reality, I usually forget to do this and get home and wonder what I am going to fix for dinner because I don't have any meat thawed out.

I tend to use my microwave to defrost meat more than anything else. I have learned from experience to watch the meat closely so it doesn't get too brown while being microwaved. Many times the edges of the meat will look like they are cooked through while the inside is still partly frozen.

I know using the microwave to defrost meat isn't the best solution, but for my busy lifestyle, it seems like that is what happens more often than not.

By golf07 — On Oct 20, 2012

@anon40880-- I was always told that it wasn't safe to freeze meat again once it had been thawed out. If it doesn't get too warm I really don't see any harm in refreezing it, but have never tried it because I didn't think it was safe. It does make more sense to me that it should be OK but the quality may not be as good as it should be.

By giddion — On Oct 19, 2012

@wavy58 – I've also been using unsafe thawing practices. I've been leaving it out on the counter for a couple of hours before I intended to cook it, because this was what my parents always did.

I didn't think that the meat could grow bacteria in a room temperature environment. It wasn't like I was adding heat to it or anything.

By healthy4life — On Oct 19, 2012

My mother used to defrost hamburger meat in the microwave. It worked, but the smell was terrible. Also, the meat would be really gross and squishy.

Also, there would be a pool of blood in the bottom of the dish. I always tried to stay out of the house until she was done cooking the meat entirely, because it was just so disgusting.

By Oceana — On Oct 18, 2012

I like to buy meat raw, but many times, I can't use it all before the expiration date. So, I freeze it.

It used to be that I could not thaw out meat within twenty-four hours in the refrigerator. If I put it in there at 5:00 in the evening one day, it would still have frozen areas by 5:00 the next day.

That's when I discovered that I could adjust the temperature setting on my refrigerator. I had it turned up so cold that things would stay frozen in there, and if I pushed anything to the back of the shelves, it would get ice in it.

After I turned it back down to “normal,” my meat started thawing out overnight. This has helped me out a lot when I'm short on time.

By wavy58 — On Oct 18, 2012

I've been using the quickest way to defrost meat, which is in a bowl of hot water. I didn't know it wasn't safe!

I generally try to plan ahead and put the meat in the refrigerator to thaw overnight, but there are times when I forget or plans change. I suppose that the microwave might be a better option than hot water, though.

I buy frozen fish, and that is what I've been thawing in hot water. It thaws within ten minutes, but I guess I could wait a little longer and use cold water.

By anon120161 — On Oct 20, 2010

Let the meat thaw in the refrigerator. If you force thaw it, such as in warm water, it makes the meat have a grainy texture. Worse than that, the meat will not taste as good, especially if you like it rare.

By anon57454 — On Dec 23, 2009

I understand that the most important thing to defrost meat safely is to keep it cool while the meat is thawing. Is it safe to leave a big chunk of frozen meat to defrost in a cool environment (e.g. 5 degrees celsius) for a few hours (e.g. 3 hours) as long as you monitor the surface temperature of the meat and it feels cool?

By anon40880 — On Aug 11, 2009

If meat is thawed, it is possible to refreeze it again, although some of the quality of the meat may be lost

By housewife09 — On Feb 23, 2009

I wanted to know if anyone can tell me if defrosting meat, then refreezing it is OK or not. I don't think so, but my husband says it is. Please help.

By anon18369 — On Sep 21, 2008

I understand that the most important thing to defrost meat safely is to keep it cool while the meat is thawing. Is it safe to leave a big chunk of frozen meat to defrost in a cool environment (e.g. 10 degrees celsius) for a few hours (e.g. 5 hours) as long as you monitor the surface temperature of the meat and it feels cool?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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