This or That: Thawing Meat in Water or in the Microwave?

You have a yard full of hungry guests, and nothing to grill but frozen meat. What’s the safest, fastest way to thaw?

June 30, 2009

The good news: You have plenty of burgers. The bad news: They're all frozen, and dinner's in five minutes.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It happens sooner or later to just about everyone who hosts backyard cookouts: You manage to keep on top of dozens and dozens of details, only to find that you didn’t defrost the meat. There are lots of ways to thaw out those burgers, but not all of them are safe. The safest way, of course, is to allow meat to thaw out in the refrigerator. But that can take hours; what do you do when guests are knocking on the door and you’ve got nothing but a pallet of rock-hard beef patties in your freezer? We asked three food-safety experts from the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, Catherine Cutter, Stephanie Doores and Martin Bucknavage, for their advice.


This: Cold-Water Thawing

Pros: Letting the frozen meat thaw while submerged in cold water is faster than fridge thawing, and like fridge thawing keeps the meat from getting warm enough for germs to grow. And it won’t partially cook the meat the way microwave-thawing can. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a pound of meat or poultry can defrost this way in about an hour.

Cons: This method requires much more attention than microwave or fridge thawing. When you thaw in cold water, you should change the water every 30 minutes, getting rid of the warmed-up water and replacing it with more cold. People often forget to do that, our experts told us. “The temperature of the food surface and thawing water will finally equilibrate to room temperature, when pathogens have the potential to grow,” they note. Furthermore, food must be thawed in a leakproof package or plastic bag, as leaks can expose the food to bacteria, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

That: Microwave Thawing

Pros: Definitely the fastest method of all, microwave thawing is convenient and doesn’t require much added attention.

Cons: The most obvious is that microwave thawing can partially cook your meat, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean you have to use the meat immediately after you thaw it, to prevent bacteria from proliferating in warm spots. You also need to pay attention to the packaging, say our food-safety experts. “Some packaging will melt when exposed to a hot product, or to the steam generated during the heating process,” they add. In addition, the foam trays on which most meat is sold may emit a cancer-causing chemical called styrene when heated.

This or That?

That. Go with microwave thawing. It’s the fastest method, and because you don’t need to worry about constantly changing the water, there’s less of a chance that you’ll forget about your half-thawed chicken that may be regrowing bacteria.

However, microwaving isn’t a perfect solution either, and there are a few additional tips to keep in mind.

• Take the meat off the foam tray and put it on a plate, to prevent exposure to chemicals that may be lurking in the foam or the plastic wrap.

• Cook the meat immediately after thawing.

• Plan ahead next time. Refrigerator thawing is the safest defrosting method, and you can even store refrigerator-thawed meat in the fridge for up to five days before cooking it.