You have many ways to defrost meat, including the microwave, on the kitchen bench, and using cold water.
If you’re looking for the safest method, however, you should be defrosting your meat in the refrigerator. It may take a little longer, but you can be confident that you’re using the best method from a food safety perspective. Our guide walks you through how to defrost different cuts of meat in the refrigerator.
Why defrost your meat in the refrigerator?
Defrosting meat in the refrigerator is the safest method of defrosting because it prevents the meat from sitting in the “danger zone” temperatures—between 40 and 140 °F—where bacteria multiply rapidly.
Defrosting in your refrigerator rather than the microwave also has the advantage of having meats defrost evenly without hot spots or cooked spots.
It’s also possible to refreeze meat that’s been thawed in the refrigerator, as long as it doesn’t at any point get to a temperature above 40 °F. This is convenient if you defrost meat and then decide not to use it after all. You can just pop it straight back into the freezer. Refrigerator defrosting is the only defrost method in which it’s safe to do this.
How long does it take?
Because of the lengthy time involved when using the refrigerator defrost method, planning ahead is essential. Different cuts of meat vary in how long they take to defrost.
Surface area is important to bear in mind when you’re defrosting frozen meat. A portion of thinly sliced chicken or fish filets defrost far quicker than a portion of bone-in roast, even if they’re the same weight.
The most reliable method is to ensure you put a single portion of frozen meat in the refrigerator the night before you intend to cook it. This guarantees your meat is perfectly thawed by the time you go to use it.
If you’re defrosting a larger cut of meat, such as a leg of lamb or a large frozen chicken or turkey, the general rule is to allow 24 hours defrost time per five pounds of frozen meat. If you’re defrosting a large cut of meat for a special event, such as a turkey for Thanksgiving, make sure you calculate how long you’ll need to have your frozen meat in the fridge in order to avoid stress on the big day.
Factors that affect defrost time
Most refrigerators are kept between 35°F and 40°F. While this might not seem like too big of a difference, meat will defrost quicker at 40°F than 35°F, so this is worth bearing in mind if you plan to frequently use your fridge for defrosting.
Position in the refrigerator
The front top shelf of the refrigerator tends to be the warmest part of the fridge. Most people have experienced pulling something out of the fridge that’s been kept on the back bottom shelf and finding it has ice crystals, or in some cases is still frozen solid. When defrosting, always keep your meat on the top shelf or you might find you return to it after leaving it overnight to find it’s still frozen. When doing this, you need to bear in mind food safety considerations, which are addressed below.
You have two options when defrosting meat in the refrigerator: to leave it in the original packaging, or to put it in an airtight container. Neither option affects the defrost time, but it’s important to ensure that if you’re defrosting in its original packaging, you check for any rips or tears in the plastic. If the packaging isn’t airtight, it can lead to leakage of meat juices when the meat thaws, which can contaminate other foods in your fridge.
Even if you’re certain that you have checked the meat packaging for holes and tears, it’s important to ensure that the meat isn’t placed in a position where it could potentially drip and contaminate other food as it defrosts. Make sure that you place your meat on a plate in the fridge even when it’s in its packaging so that if there is an unseen hole, thawed meat juices can’t pool inside the fridge. Also, make sure that other foods in your fridge are kept covered and sealed in order to prevent contamination.
How long will the meat keep after thawing?
According to the USDA, foods remain safe while thawing in the refrigerator as long as they are kept at 40 °F or less. Use ground meats, poultry, and fish within one or two days after thawing, and beef, pork, lamb, or veal (roasts, steaks, or chops) within three to five days.
What if the meat isn’t completely thawed?
If you come to take your meat out of the refrigerator and discover it’s not completely thawed, you have a couple of options. You can use the microwave or place the meat in cold water to finish off the last bit of defrosting, or you can just decide to cook the meat as is.
While it may not be ideal, it’s definitely possible to cook meat that’s still partially frozen. You just have to increase the cooking time to ensure it’s properly cooked all the way through. You can do this by using a meat thermometer to check if the interior of the meat is the correct temperature.