One of my favorite dinners — especially during the chilliest of months — is one that I only have to thaw (hopefully it’s homemade). Even the lousiest of cooks can defrost a meal, but there are more rules to the method than simply turning the oven on and tossing in the frozen food.
According to NSF International, improperly handling frozen foods can pose a potential health risk. The “chef” needs to ensure that the internal temperature of the food never reaches the “danger zone” of 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature range in which bacteria that cause foodborne illness can rapidly multiply.
A big don’t: Never thaw food at room temperature — ugh, guilty — because the outer surface could warm above 40 degrees while the center remains frozen. And never leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than two hours, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
So instead of just plopping your frozen meal out on the counter, try any of these three safe methods:
Place wrapped food in a pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator away from other foods. This can take several hours. Think Thanksgiving turkey, which can take three to four days to thaw in the fridge. A good rule of thumb, according to NSF: Plan on a thawing time of about four to five hours per pound for most foods.
Remember that some areas of your fridge may keep food colder than other areas, says the FSIS. For example, food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 degrees Fahrenheit than one set at 40 degrees.
Thawed food like ground meat, stew meat, poultry and seafood should be safe to eat for an additional day or two before cooking; red meats (such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks) can last for three to five days. Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, according to the FSIS, but you can expect some loss of quality.
Place a wrapped package of frozen food in a pan of cold water, and change the water about every 30 minutes. Make sure you use a leak-proof package or plastic bag, says the FSIS, so bacteria from the air can’t be introduced into the food. Continue until thawed. This will take about 30 minutes per pound to thaw. Only use this method if you plan to cook the food immediately. (Never use hot water, according to FSIS.)
Small packages of meat, poultry or seafood — about a pound — can thaw in an hour or less. A 3-to 4-pound package may take two to three hours.
Foods thawed by this method should be cooked before refreezing.
Check your owner’s manual for the minutes per pound and power level, and rotate the food regularly to ensure even thawing. If you choose the microwave, food must be cooked immediately, says NSF. Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.
If you’re in a complete time crunch, most foods can be cooked while completely frozen. You’ll need to extend your cooking time and use a certified food thermometer to verify that the food has been cooked to a proper internal temperature throughout. And remember, frozen foods can take up to 50% longer to cook.