You've Been Defrosting Your Food All Wrong — Here's How To Do It Right

How do you defrost your food before you cook it? There are a few popular methods — only some of which are safe. One popular method is specifically warned against by the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture: thawing on your counter.

Though it's common practice to leave a hunk of frozen meat on your counter for a couple hours before cooking dinner, this method could put you at risk of getting food poisoning. Why? Because foodborne bacteria is more likely to grow at room temperature. So any perishable food left out on the counter for more than two hours is at risk. That's why eating pizza you left out overnight is a bad idea. It could make you sick.

The USDA also warns against defrosting in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag. Thawing foods by leaving them outdoors is also unsafe.

Luckily, the right ways to defrost food are really easy to do. Here is a simple guide to the three most basic, effective methods.

Thawing in the Refrigerator: Is it Safe?

Though leaving your food out on the counter to thaw might be quicker, you're much better off thawing food in the fridge. According to the USDA, food thawed in the refrigerator is much safer to eat because bacteria are less likely to grow at these colder temperatures.

Thawing in the Refrigerator: How to Do It

The process is really very simple. Just put your food in the refrigerator and wait. Different amounts of food will take different amounts of time to fully thaw. For example, let's say you're cooking a huge bird for Thanksgiving. According to the USDA, every 5 pounds of turkey needs 24 hours of time. Smaller quantities of meat need at least one full day to thaw completely. Once thawed, the meat will stay safe to cook and eat for a day or two; so don't worry about allowing it to thaw for too long.

Thawing in the Refrigerator: Tips

If the food is something that needs to be cooked before eating, such as raw meat, make sure the food is tightly wrapped and enclosed so that it does not make contact with other food in your fridge. You may also want to store the food on the bottom shelf so that any drippings don't land on items below. If some of the juices do happen to drip down onto another shelf, just use this guide to cleaning your fridge the right way to ensure your food is safe.

Thawing in the Refrigerator: Can I Refreeze It?

Yes! Once food has been thawed in your refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze and thaw again at a later date. Just keep in mind that the quality of the meat might suffer as a result. You may not get a restaurant-quality burger if you keep refreezing your ground beef. Though that's not the only reason their burgers taste better.

Thawing in Cold Water: Is it Safe?

Note: cold water. Warm or room-temperature water may put your food safety at risk. But using cold water, submerging your food until it thaws is a perfectly safe way to handle frozen food.

Thawing in Cold Water: How to Do It

This method requires a bit more effort than others — but it's also faster, so it might be worth it. First, seal your food in an air-tight plastic bag. Make sure there are no holes so that it doesn't leak. If it does leak, bacteria from the water could contaminate your food (it would also make your meat really watery before you cooked it). Submerge the bag in cold water until the meat or other food is thawed through; change the water every 30 minutes to maintain its temperature. Small quantities of food take around an hour to thaw completely. Larger food items (like a frozen turkey) take around 30 minutes for every pound they weigh. It's probably not a smart idea to try this method with a frozen turkey, though — you'd need to fill a whole bathtub!

Thawing in Cold Water: Tips

After you defrost your food in cold water, you're going to want to cook it immediately. If you don't, the meat or other uncooked food left at room temperature is at risk for growing foodborne bacteria. Also, something you do not want to do is thaw your food in the sink — especially if it's not properly bagged. The bacteria from food (such as salmonella from uncooked chicken) could infect your sink. That's where you do your dishes! You want it to be clean.

Thawing in Cold Water: Can I Refreeze It?

No! Once you thaw food using this method, you must cook it before putting it back in the freezer. That's according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, and they know a thing or two about food safety.

Thawing in the Microwave: Is it Safe?

You can thaw your food in the microwave perfectly safely; you just need to be careful. Every microwave is different, but trying to speed up the process by using a higher temperature can leave you with unevenly cooked food. The outside of your meat, for example, may be cooked through while the inside is still frozen solid. Use the microwave's preset button for thawing food.

Thawing in the Microwave: How to Do It

It's fairly simple: Just make sure the food is in a container that won't allow anything to leak onto the interior of your microwave and use the preset button. Voila.

Thawing in the Microwave: Tips

After the food is thawed, make sure not to touch the raw meat with your hands. Use a container; or, if you must use your hands, wash them thoroughly afterwards. This is super important for protecting against food poisoning. Partially cooked or recently thawed food can carry foodborne bacteria that you want to be careful not to transmit to other places in your kitchen. Additionally, make sure you cook the food immediately right after it has been thawed to avoid the growth of bacteria at room temperature.

Thawing in the Microwave: Can I Refreeze It?

No! You should always cook your food after you thaw it in the microwave.

Can I Cook Food Without Thawing it First?

Yes! According to the USDA, it is safe to cook food directly out of the freezer. However, keep in mind that the time required to cook it is going to increase. You may also get an unevenly cooked meal, depending on your method. There is, however, one important exception. Do not cook meat in your slow cooker without thawing it first. According to the USDA, it's actually dangerous to cook meat in a slow cooker directly from your freezer. But don't let that stop you from using yours! Use one of the other safe thawing methods on this list before making one of these 101 incredible slow cooker recipes.

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