Count me among the people who pat themselves on the back when they carefully pack away food in the freezer, knowing there’s something to cook and eat in the future. That, my friends, is only half the battle. Of course, there’s the whole issue of remembering what’s actually in there (I’ve been trying to track our inventory on a magnetic whiteboard, at least when my son isn’t insisting on taking it down to write on). But you also need to figure out when and how to thaw it, and that can often be the one thing that tips the scales from timely convenience to time-consuming roadblock. Or worse.
“You want to defrost food the safe way,” says Shauna Henley, a family and consumer sciences educator at the University of Maryland Extension who has a PhD in biology with a focus on consumer food safety issues. “It’s basically to prevent potential foodborne illness or food poisoning.”
So how do you ensure your defrosted food is safe and satisfying? Read on.
• Meat. This is the one to really pay attention to and the category with the largest potential for foodborne illness if not handled properly. Pathogens thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, so your goal is to keep the food out of what is often referred to as “the danger zone.” That’s exactly why leaving your meat to thaw on the counter is never, ever a good idea, no matter the temperature of your house or how cold the food feels to the touch. Similarly, you should never leave food on your porch or other places outside to thaw. Period.
The easiest, safest and most forgiving spot to defrost meat, Henley says, is the refrigerator. Verify with an appliance thermometer that the fridge is between 32 to 40 degrees, and familiarize yourself enough with your refrigerator to know where the especially cold spots are that could slow down the thawing process, such as near a fan. Keep the thawing meat in a clean bowl or plate to catch any leaks. The time will vary depending on the size of the meat and your refrigerator, but the U.S. Agriculture Department says to count on at least 24 hours per 5 pounds of a large cut, such as a turkey, and at least a day for smaller items, such as ground meat or chicken breasts. Cook thawed red meat within 3 to 5 days and ground meat, poultry and seafood within 1 to 2 days. Refrigerator thawing is the only defrosting method after which you can safely refreeze the raw food, though you may experience a loss of quality.
As Harold McGee explains in “On Food and Cooking,” water is a more efficient medium for transferring heat to meat than air (20 times faster, to be precise), while still keeping the surface of the meat out of warmer, microbe-friendly temperatures. That’s why a cold-water bath, in a bowl on the counter or the sink, is another recommended strategy for thawing meat. Henley recommends using water that is colder than 70 degrees. Be sure the meat is in a leakproof bag or packaging. Whether you place a plate or bowl on top to keep the food submerged is up to you, though doing so may speed up the process a little. Regardless, change the water every 30 minutes and wash your hands each time as well. Henley says to count on about 1 hour of the water bath per pound of food, though timing can vary. Food thawed by this method should be cooked right away and cannot be refrozen while raw. You can, however, refreeze the cooked food, if desired.
If you’re really in a pinch, you can thaw meat in the microwave. There are a few risks here, including that you may begin to cook/overcook or dry out the meat before you even start to prepare the dish. Also, warming the meat in the microwave means “there’s a lot of good things going on” for potential pathogens, Henley says. That’s why microwave-thawed food also needs to be cooked right away and cannot be refrozen until it is fully cooked. Defrosting in the microwave can be a bit of “trial by fire,” as Henley says, as they vary in strength. Be sure to read the manual for recommended times. Covering the food while defrosting can help retain moisture, while occasionally flipping or rotating can help ensure even thawing.
You can cook meat and poultry from frozen. McGee says this works well “with relatively slow methods such as oven roasting, which give the heat time to penetrate to the center without drastically overcooking the outer portions of the meat.” He says to expect cook times that are 30 to 50% more than those with fresh cuts.
Whatever method you choose (and whether you started with frozen food or not), be sure to have a thermometer handy to ensure the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature.
• Soups, sauces and broths. If you have enough time, go ahead and let these thaw in the refrigerator. This can take several days depending on how much you froze and its shape — a flatter layer (Henley likes 4 inches or less), for example, will thaw faster than a tall cylinder. Henley often employs a two-prong strategy for thawing soups and stews, using the microwave to loosen the food from the container before transferring to a pot to finish heating all the way through. (The government recommends bringing soups and sauces back to a rolling boil to ensure safety.) You can also run your container briefly under tap water just enough to loosen it from the sides before heating on the stove top.
• Bread. This one’s easy and, hey, no risk of food poisoning. The lowest lift is to let a frozen loaf thaw, still wrapped, on the counter for a few hours or overnight, and then crisp it in a 350- to 400-degree oven for a few minutes. Or wrap the still-frozen bread in foil and heat for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size and whether you want to just quickly thaw or also warm it. If you’ve frozen individual slices, those will thaw very quickly on the counter or can go straight into the toaster or toaster oven.
Pizza dough is especially handy to keep in the freezer. For that or other yeasted doughs, let thaw at least overnight in the refrigerator.
Slices of baked pizza — a lifesaver in my house — can go from freezer to oven. I typically bake them on a sheet pan at 375 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Or use a pizza stone if you have one. Timing will vary depending on how thick the crust is.
• Other baked goods. Any baked treats, such as cookies, brownies, etc., are fine to defrost on the counter. A brief stint in the oven at 350 degrees can bring them close to freshly baked perfection.