What's Safer: Thawing Meat In Water Or The Microwave?

Your family is hungry and everything is frozen.

February 24, 2016
Frozen Beef
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHOTOSIBER/GETTY

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, or that chicken, 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 and Stephanie Doores, for their advice.

Related: Great Organic Burger Recipes

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Cold-Water

Suggested Method: Place frozen meat in a sealed, zip lock bag and place in a tub of water, with either a constant flow of cool running water or replace the water every 30 minutes. 

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.

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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, or allow a stream of water to flow onto the product. “This will help keep the water at a more constant temperature to better facilitate thawing while keeping the temp low enough to prevent bacterial pathogens from growing,” our experts noted. Another key is making sure the bag does not leak, which can lead to soggy meat and allow bacteria to leak out.

Microwave

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

Related: 8 Foods You Should NEVER Freeze

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 cook 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 are not designed to be heated, and they may emit a harmful chemical called styrene when heated.

Go With The Microwave
It is, alas, both the fastest and safest method, because you don’t need to worry about constantly changing the water so there’s less of a chance that you’ll forget about your half-thawed chicken that may be regrowing bacteria. For burgers, you can also thaw them as part of the cooking process without any additional pre-thawing. You just have to ensure they reach the proper temp inside without burning to a crisp on the outside Start with a lower temperature initially to thaw and then increase it to cook the meat, our experts recommend, and always use a meat thermometer to ensure the proper internal temp has been reached. Bonus: Frozen patties are easier to handle.

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

• Take the meat off any foam trays that it may have come with, and put it on a plate to prevent exposure to chemicals that may be released from the foam or the plastic wrap upon heating.

• Cook the meat immediately after thawing.

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

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