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Many of us have encountered the solid block of frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning or the packs of 'meatcicles' formerly known as frozen ground beef. The temptation may be to quickly thaw frozen meat in a vat of boiling water or leave it out on a counter at room temperature all afternoon. These two methods to thaw frozen meat are not acceptable. Hot water may partially cook the meat, rendering it flavorless and ripe for bacterial growth, and room temperature thawing can cause contamination. The best way to thaw meat is refrigeration and time.
Frozen meat will remain safe for quite a while, but the clock begins ticking once the thawing process begins. The first step when you begin to thaw frozen meat is to move the product, packaging and all, from the freezer. Inspect the meat for any obvious signs of contamination - discoloration, unusual odor, or compromised packaging. If everything appears to be okay, place the package in a refrigerator set between 35 and 40°F (approximately 2 to 4.5°C). Place a pan or cookie sheet beneath the package to prevent meat juices from dripping.
When using a refrigerator to thaw frozen meat, allow enough time for the meat to become completely, or at least partially, defrosted. A small package of ground beef may only require a day to thaw, while a large frozen turkey could require up to a week. The refrigerator method is considered a safe way to thaw meat because the cold temperature does not allow bacteria to grow on the surface.
If you need to thaw frozen meat in less time than the refrigerator method, the next safest process is a cold water bath. Make sure the meat is wrapped in its original packaging or rewrapped in plastic before using the cold water method. Excess water in the meat itself may ruin its flavor. Place the packaged frozen meat in a sink compartment or tub containing cold water. As you thaw meat in the sink or other container, you may want to reposition the package from time to time to ensure even defrosting.
Change out the cold water every 30 minutes or so to keep the meat thawing and the water above freezing temperature. Continue until the meat has become almost completely thawed, or at least able to be prepped for cooking. Fish fillets, for example, can still be breaded while partially frozen, but the cooking time may need to be adjusted. Partially thawed frozen beef can still be browned slowly in a pan, as long as the frozen portions are quickly heated above the danger zone for bacterial growth.
A third way to thaw frozen meat is with a microwave oven, but results are notoriously varied. The defrost setting for many microwave ovens is approximately one-third of full power. If you decide to thaw meat in a microwave, you must be careful not to partially cook the meat in the process. If the meat can be crumbled, such as frozen ground beef, use a meat-safe container to collect and refrigerate the defrosted portions as they develop. If the meat is solid, make sure it is cooked within a few hours of microwave defrosting. The partially-cooked meat could become contaminated with bacteria if not used quickly.