How to Defrost Meat Safely: Microwave vs. Countertop Method vs. In The Fridge

Food safety is vital, especially when using the freezer. Knowing how to properly freeze items and, more importantly, defrost them, is crucial so you do not become unwell.

When it comes to meat, the process of defrosting meat is fraught with danger due to the risks of bacteria and potential illness.

However, Newsweek spoke to experts who gave their advice on how to thaw meats, taking the stress and complication out of food prep.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said there are three foolproof methods of defrosting: in the microwave, on the countertop in water and in the fridge.

However, it is important to consider the best method of thawing your food and leave sufficient time to do so.

Christine Byrne MPH, RD, a private practice dietitian in Raleigh, North Carolina, told Newsweek these methods can be used across all meat and, in fact, any other types of food.

However, when it comes to something like fish, some methods are better than others.

Defrosting meat
A stock image of defrosting meat. Using a microwave is also a quick way to defrost meat safely, but it must be cooked straight away. Getty Images

She explained: "The three methods of safe thawing work for all types of meat and fish. That said, there are some differences.

"Fish may not thaw properly in the microwave, since its delicate flesh and a high water content might turn it mushy.

"As long as you're following guidelines, each of these methods of thawing is safe. That said, refrigerator thawing has the least room for error, and is guaranteed to keep your food at a safe temperature while it thaws."

So what are these three methods? Newsweek breaks down the best ways to defrost safely.

Defrosting Meat in the Microwave

Defrosting meat in the microwave is exactly as it sounds: putting your frozen meat in the microwave on the defrost setting.

Byrne said, with this method, it is a good method if you plan to eat that meat right away, and as microwaves thaw from the inside to the outside, it may be parts of the meat are warmer than others when using this method.

Due to this warming, it is important to cook straight away to destroy any bacteria.

As Byrne mentioned, you should also consider what you are defrosting and whether microwaving is the best method. In the case of fish, other methods are better suited.

Defrosting Meat in the Refrigerator

The second method is in the refrigerator, which, according to food safety expert Jenna Brown, is the safest due to the gradual way in which the defrosting takes place.

Brown told Newsweek: "The safest way to defrost is always overnight in the refrigerator. If defrosting in the microwave, the most important thing to note is the need to cook the food immediately. If using the cold water method, only use cold water (don't be tempted to use hot or lukewarm water.)"

The fridge method requires more preparation than others, as the larger the meat, the longer the defrost will take. For example, if you are defrosting your bird for Thanksgiving, that could take days in the fridge.

Frozen meat
A stock image of frozen meat. Defrosting frozen meat in the fridge is the most reliable way to thaw food safely, according to experts. FRED TANNEAU/Getty Images

Byrne said: "To thaw meat in the refrigerator, transfer sealed meat from the freezer to the fridge the day before you plan to cook it. Smaller items, like chicken breasts and steaks, may thaw in about 12 hours.

"Larger items, like whole chickens and turkeys, pork shoulders, and other big cuts of meat, will take about 24 hours for every 5 pounds.

"Foods thawed in the fridge can be refrigerated for between one (for chicken, fish, and ground meat products) and five (for big cuts of meat like a brisket or lamb roast) days."

However, if you are in a pinch, the FSIS suggests an even faster way to defrost.

Defrosting Meat in Water

The final method is by defrosting in cold water. The FSIS suggests using a leakproof bag and placing it in cold water, which should be changed every 30 minutes until an item is defrosted.

However, it is important not to including an tissue-like items in the bag or let the bag leak, as that can cause cross-contamination of bacteria into other foods and on surfaces.

Byrne says, like food which is defrosted in a microwave, this should be cooked straight away.

She said: "Generally, meat will take about 30 minutes per pound to thaw in cold water. And, be sure to thaw in a sealed package, so that raw meat doesn't contaminate your water and sink.

"Food thawed in the sink must be cooked immediately."

However, one thing is important to note about this countertop method: cold water must be used.

The FSIS says leaving something out on the countertop is not a safe way to defrost food, so if you choose to leave it out, it must be immersed in cold water using this method.

Can I Refreeze Thawed Meat?

This is a controversial issue. According to the FSIS, technically, you can refreeze meat, but it may compromise the quality due to the change in states and loss of moisture through the freezing and thawing process.

Defrosting turkey
A stock image of defrosting turkey. You must change the water every 30 minutes if you are defrosting in water in the sink or on the countertop. Getty Images

As Byrne mentioned, that which has been defrosted in the microwave or in water should not be refrozen, and should be cooked immediately.

However, so long as it has not been thawed for more than a day, meat can be refrozen even if it has not been cooked.

Brown also said one can refreeze meat once it has been cooked, but it is important, when refreezing cooked meat or leftovers, to make sure it is completely cooled.

She said: "It is safe to freeze raw meat, defrost, cook and freeze the leftovers again. Make sure any leftovers are cooled as quickly as possible and frozen/ chilled within two hours. When reheating cooked foods, only reheat once."

Can I Cook Meat From Frozen?

According to Byrne and the FSIS, you can cook meat from frozen, but you must take the cooking time into consideration when doing so.

As the meat is frozen, it must be removed from its packaging and, in the case of whole birds with giblets included, these must be taken apart as soon as possible to cook the giblets separately.

Byrne said the meat may not be as tender this way, but one way of cooking gives the meat the best chance at being as good as fresh.

She said: "If you don't have time to thaw meat properly in cold water or the fridge, and don't want to use a microwave, it is possible to cook meat from frozen. In an oven, your cook time will be about 50 percent longer, and the meat may not be as tender.

"The best way to cook frozen meat is in an air fryer because the convection function wicks away moisture as it melts."