How do I defrost meat safely to prevent food poisoning?

How you defrost your meat actually plays a role in whether or not it's safe to eat. Here's why: Bacteria thrive at room temperature, so when foods are defrosted on the kitchen counter at room temperature, it provides the perfect environment for foodborne pathogens to multiply.

Defrost meat safely with one of these two methods:
  • In the refrigerator. Take raw meats out of the freezer and place in the refrigerator. Make sure the meat is covered and place it on the bottom shelf so raw juices don't drip onto other foods.
  • In the microwave. Use the defrost setting on the microwave oven. Once meat is thawed, cook immediately afterward.
  • The same rules apply when grilling outside. Don't cut corners by putting frozen meats on the grill. Always defrost in the refrigerator or the microwave first.
Deborah Beauvais
Nutrition & Dietetics
Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter, or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the "Danger Zone," between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly. 

There are three safe ways to thaw food: 

Refrigerator Thawing
Planning ahead is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved. A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every 5 pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food — such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts — require a full day to thaw. When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are variables to take into account.
  • Some areas of the appliance may keep food colder than other areas.
  • Food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 °F than one set at 40 °F.
After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, seafood, should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before cooking; red meat cuts (such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks) 3 to 5 days. Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

Cold Running Water Thawing
This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. 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.

The bag should be placed in a sink under a steady stream of cool running water. Small packages of meat, poultry or seafood — about a pound — may thaw in an hour or less. A 3-to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. If thawed completely, the food must be cooked immediately.

Microwave Thawing

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). Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and, indeed, the food may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.

After thawing in the microwave, always cook immediately after, whether microwave cooking, by conventional oven, or grilling. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.