One of the first problems a budding chef can face is how to safely defrost a piece of meat. To add to the confusion, there's many ways to do it incorrectly, and only a handful of ways to do it safely. Thawing a piece of meat without care for how you go about it can seriously increase the risk of food-borne pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. The main thing to keep in mind when defrosting something is how long it will spend in "the danger zone", or the temperature range that will allow harmful diseases to flourish. This temperature range is usually accepted to be between 40°-140° F or 4°-60° C. All of these tricks will work regardless of what you're defrosting, even if it's not meat, but these procedures are the only ones considered safe for meat by the USDA. Also, all of these times are based on defrosting cuts of meat between 1/2 lb and 3 lbs (225 - 1350 grams). If you are defrosting something larger, you'll need to provide more defrosting time than noted here.
  • The Refrigerator Method - 18-24 hours

This method is the safest and the easiest, but the obvious downside is that it requires a lot of time. You'll need one (1) refrigerator and one (1) plate or other flat surface willing and capable of supporting your piece of meat.

    1. Remove your meat from your freezer. Note: leaving your meat in the freezer will not actually defrost it.
    2. Put your meat on your plate (or other flat surface et cetera).
    3. Put your plate and meat in the fridge.
    4. Wait until defrosted.

If defrosting a large cut of meat, such as a whole turkey, the USDA recommends one day per five pounds (2.25 kg) of meat, which works out to about five hours per pound (450g).

  • The Cold Water Method - 1/2-2 hours

This method is best when you absolutely positively have to defrost a piece of meat before dinner, but requires a bit more attention. You'll need a plastic bag that's big enough to hold the entire piece of meat with either a lot of height left over or a watertight seal (such as a ziploc bag), a large bowl that is big enough to contain the entire piece of meat, and a sink big enough to hold the bowl. In short:

    1. Remove your meat from your freezer and unwrap it.
    2. Put your meat in your sack and seal it (if applicable).
    3. Put your sack of meat in the bowl. Try to leave the opening hanging over the side where it will not admit water to the bag itself. You have not had a crappy piece of meat until you've tried to cook watery ground beef.
    4. Fill the bowl with enough cold water so that your meat is totally immersed. You may need to place a weight on top, such as a dinner plate.
    5. Optional: Leave the tap running so that cold water is constantly flowing through the bowl. This will speed up defrosting (see convection for the why) but is obviously going to run up your water bill a bit.
    6. Change the water in the bowl every thirty minutes to ensure that the water remains cold.
    7. Repeat the previous step until your meat is defrosted.

If you're strapped for space, you could plausibly skip the bowl and just fill the sink with cold water, making sure to change it as normal. The use of a bathtub, industrial sink, nearby pond, local wastewater treatment plant, or other body of water is not recommended. This isn't a recommended method for defrosting large pieces of meat, because you'll be changing the water in the container every thirty minutes for somewhere between three and thirty-six hours. Finally, anything you defrost this way should be cooked immediately, as it will have spent too much time in the danger zone to be refrozen safely.

  • The Microwave Method - 6-18 minutes

This method is for when you've completely forgotten to defrost your meat and are in the middle of actually making whatever unholy drunken assault on cuisine you didn't have the foresight to plan for. You'll need a plate or other microwave-safe surface and a microwave. Basically:

    1. Drag out your piece of meat and unwrap it.
    2. Put your meat on your plate (or other non-metallic flat surface et cetera).
    3. Put your plate and meat in the microwave.
    4. Microwave it at half power to ensure that the entire piece of meat is defrosted, not just the outside.
    5. You'll need to vary the time spent in the microwave by the total weight and cut of the meat. Ten minutes per pound is a good place to start.
    6. Flip over the piece of meat halfway through to make sure it's evenly defrosted.

The main reason to avoid using a microwave to defrost meat is that it is impossible for a microwave to defrost the inside and outside of a frozen piece of meat at the same rate. Expect to see the outside of the meat completely cooked with an almost-frozen center. If this doesn't seem like an obvious downside, then you may continue to microwave the meat until it's totally cooked through and then throw it out the door because you are entirely bereft of taste.

It's worth noting that putting meat on a metallic surface will actually defrost the meat (at least, the side of the meat in contact with the plate) faster than a glass or plastic surface. This is because metal is a better conductor of temperature. Those fancypants "Magic Defroster" plates you see advertised on TV are nothing more than a tarted-up sheet of aluminum. However, don't rely on just the metal plate: defrosting a piece of meat by leaving it out on a countertop or by using hot or warm water is how people get food poisoning and how restaurants get major health code violations. You would be better off removing the meat from your freezer, unwrapping it, and chucking it straight into your pan or pot while still frozen.

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