I don’t know about you, but I’ve never owned more frozen food in my life than I do right at this very moment. My freezer is stuffed to capacity with cauliflower gnocchi, Brussels sprouts, veggie burgers, and raspberries galore—but I’d be lying if I said I know how to thaw frozen food “correctly.” And so, to freeze out the details once and for all, I asked a dietitian.
Before you even think about thawing that chicken breast or bag of frozen peas, there are a few things you should never do when you’re trying to make a speedy dinner out of frozen goods.
The 3 things to avoid when you thaw frozen food
- Never run your ingredients, particularly meat, under hot water. “It can accidentally, and unknowingly, bring the temperature of the food too high which can be a health hazard thanks to the multiplying bacteria,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD. “You don’t even need the entire temperature of the food to escalate above 140. Even just heating certain areas of the food can help harmful bacteria to successfully grow so don’t take any chances.”
- Watch out for the danger zone. “The danger zone temperatures are between 40 and 140 degrees Farneheit where bacteria likes to grow and fester,” says Beckerman. “The safest thing to do is to buy a meat thermometer and test the internal temperature of the food and make sure it repeatedly is above 140,” Beckerman says. Do your very best to keep all food below 40 degrees before you cook it.
- Never cook meat or veggies that you accidentally left out on the counter for the day. For the same, germy reasons the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that veggies or protein you remembered to put out on the counter but didn’t cook in a timely manner should be tossed. A good rule of thumb, adds Beckerman, is that if you’re unsure about whether or not it’s safe to eat, throw it away. Period.
How to thaw frozen food safely, no matter how soon you want dinner
1. Thaw in the fridge (duration: 8 hours to a few days)
How to do it: The USDA and Beckerman both agree that—if you have the time to wait—the fridge is by far the safest place to thaw your food. “Ideally, you should thaw frozen foods—particularly proteins like shrimp, poultry, or beef—in the fridge overnight because the refrigerator temperature is regulated and stable so it’s a pretty safe practice,” says Beckerman. “Otherwise, if you leave these proteins out on the counter, you run the risk of exposing it to sunlight which could bring the internal temperature too high and allow harmful bacteria to fester.”
It’s important to remember, however, that the larger the item, the longer it needs to thaw from its frozen state. “A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day for every five pounds of weight,” says the USDA. “Even small amounts of frozen food—such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts—require a full day to thaw.” You don’t want to cut into raw chicken, after all.
What to do with the leftovers: The USDA notes that food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen with some “loss of quality.”
2. Use a bowl of cold water (duration: 1 to 3 hours)
How to do it: This trick applies to meat, poultry, and seafood, and takes about an hour to three hours, depending on the size of the portion. “The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw,” says the USDA. “The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the meat tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product.” Make sure you’re checking on your protein often if you use this method.
What to do with the leftovers: “Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing,” notes the USDA.
3. Pop it in the microwave
How to do it: Your microwave likely has a thaw setting, so feel free to use that, BUT—for the sake of germs—make sure to cook it as soon as that timer goes off. “When thawing food in a microwave, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process (bringing the food to “Danger Zone” temperatures),” warns the USDA. They also note that the balmy temperatures of your garage, porch, or kitchen counter do not count as makeshift microwaves. Smh.
What to do with the leftovers: Cook these foods before refreezing.
4. Cook foods from frozen… so, like, don’t thaw them
How to do it: “When there is not enough time to thaw frozen foods, or you’re simply in a hurry, just remember: it is safe to cook foods from the frozen state. The cooking will take approximately 50 percent longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry,” says the USDA.
What to do with the leftovers: Place what you’re not using directly back in the freezer.
Now that we’ve settled that, here are a bunch of ways to cook a chicken that will knock your socks off. And if you’re not in the mood for meat, try this “beet bourguignon” that even Julia Child would laud.