12 Mistakes You Might Be Making When Defrosting Meat
Storing meat can be pretty tricky. As a perishable substance, meat doesn't last long once you get it home from the store, and some types, like chicken pieces or ground beef, may only have a day or two in your refrigerator before they start to spoil. To take advantage of the affordability of buying meat in bulk, turn to your freezer.
Freezers are awesome for storing meat and can extend the lifespan of your product by months, with full chickens and turkeys lasting for up to a year when frozen. While defrosted meat may taste slightly different, it'll hold its nutritional value, delivering the same servings of protein, minerals, and vitamins.
But handling meat — defrosted or otherwise — can be a tricky business. Meat can be a host for multiple different kinds of bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and Bacillus cereus, all of which can cause food poisoning. Given how common foodborne illnesses are, with approximately a sixth of all Americans experiencing one per year (according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), it pays to know how to handle meat and defrost it safely, while simultaneously doing so in a manner that keeps it tasty.
When it comes to defrosting meat, fridge placement matters. Placing your meat on the top shelf of your fridge is risky, as when your meat begins to defrost, it will release moisture and juices that have been previously frozen. These juices could then drip down into the rest of your fridge and onto all of your other food, causing cross-contamination. This risk is even higher if your fridge shelf is slatted, creating opportunities for the juice to move through it. While putting defrosting meat in a container can catch released moisture, there's always the chance that you knock it accidentally, spilling it everywhere.
The easiest thing to do is place your defrosting meat at the bottom of the fridge, ideally in a deep container. If you do accidentally spill any meat juices directly onto food, it's best to throw it out. Food that's in a juice-covered container may be salvageable, provided that you disinfect the container immediately and thoroughly, and decant the food into a clean one. Spilled juice in the fridge should similarly be cleaned up as soon as possible, and you should disinfect any shelves or surfaces that have been affected with hot, soapy water or antibacterial spray. Make sure not to use your regular kitchen sponge to do this, as this will make it unsanitary. Use paper towels, and dispose of them immediately.
It can make sense to assume that running your meat under a warm tap would help it defrost, as the continuous stream of water warms the meat up. But it's something you should never do. "Don't do it! Don't wash the meat," Tamika Sims, International Food Information Council Foundation's director of food technology communications, told Insider. According to Sims, this is a surefire way to create an unsanitary environment in your kitchen. When you rinse meat, you're splashing all the potential juices from it into your sink, onto your taps, and across your countertops. This can create a breeding ground for bacteria and increases the chances of you contracting a foodborne illness.
It's also worth remembering that this can work both ways — you probably don't want your meat in your sink in the first place. "There's more fecal bacteria in your kitchen sink than there is in a toilet after you flush it," Charles Gerba, a professor of public health, environmental science, and immunology at the University of Arizona, told CNN. Any germs that are residing in your sink that come into contact with your meat could potentially contaminate it, turning something that was safe to eat into a vehicle for food poisoning.
While your meat may last for a long time in the freezer, it definitely won't last forever. Many types of meat, like sausages, bacon, and already-cooked deli meat, may only keep for a month or two in the freezer before they start to deteriorate in quality. Other meat may last longer, with the general rule being that the larger the cut, the longer it will last. However, its ability to stay fresh is dependent on your freezer — and your food — staying at a consistently low temperature.
When your frozen meat gets too old, it's not the best idea to defrost and eat it. It's not necessarily that your meat will be dangerous. If it's preserved sufficiently, the meat may be technically safe and bacteria-free. But over time, your meat will lose its quality. Texture and flavor will begin to suffer, thanks to the continuous exposure to cold air in your freezer altering the structure of your food. While storing your meat in an airtight container can help, it won't protect it indefinitely.
Leaving your meat at room temperature to defrost is pretty logical on paper, given that the warmer a place you leave it, the quicker it'll thaw. But in reality, leaving meat on the counter can be pretty risky. When meat is left at room temperature, the outside of it thaws more quickly than the interior. When this happens, the meat's exterior layer enters what the U.S. Department of Agriculture dubs the "Danger Zone:" the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit in which bacteria are able to more easily multiply.
As such, while you're waiting for the inside of your meat to thaw, the outside of it may already be hosting ever-increasing numbers of bacteria, creating a risk of food poisoning. Rather than risk this, it's better to defrost your meat in the refrigerator. While it takes longer, your refrigerator will control the temperature that your meat thaws, keeping it out of the "Danger Zone," and reducing the risk of bacterial spread. Just bear in mind that you might take longer than you think: Cuts of meat can take a full day to defrost, with some larger items, like full-size turkeys, taking even longer.
Most modern microwaves have a defrost function. This works by reducing the power of the machine (usually to around 30%) and then thawing your food without cooking it. But while this can be a quick method to defrost meat, it's not totally reliable. Using the defrost setting on a microwave for your meat is perfectly safe, but it also warms the food as it operates. This can inadvertently start to cook your meat in certain places. When you eventually cook the meat in your intended way, you may then find that parts of it are tough, stringy, or unappetizing.
Additionally, the meat can still release juices when defrosting in the microwave. These juices can splatter all over the inside of your machine if not careful, creating a hazardous environment.
The defrost microwave function can also warm your meat up too much, to the point where it can host bacteria. That's why — if you are using the defrost function — you should cook your meat pretty much straight away. But in our view, it's always better to defrost meat at a slower, colder pace, in the fridge.
It can feel like a timesaver to cook meat straight from frozen, avoiding the hours that are normally spent waiting for it to defrost. But it may not be entirely safe to do so. Cooking meat from frozen means that it takes longer to cook all the way through, with the outside being done before the inside is. Not only does this produce a variable result, with some parts being potentially overcooked and some undercooked, but there's also a safety aspect to consider.
Bacteria can survive when frozen, and when you defrost it, it will begin to spread once more. If bacteria is inside your meat — and you're cooking it from frozen, potentially finishing before it's fully heated — you may be creating a risk of foodborne illness.
Additionally, cooking meat from frozen won't produce the best result. Frozen meat can have ice crystals which affect the cells of the protein, making them more susceptible to releasing juices when they're heated back up. When you add this to the fact that these crystals may melt into water when they hit the hot pan, you may end up with a pretty watery end product. Instead, permit your meat to defrost fully, and drain off any excess water before cooking.
Submerging meat in hot water can produce quick results, with the meat quickly coming up to thawing temperature. But it can also be an unsafe method for defrosting. When you use hot water, you're essentially creating an environment that bacteria are at their happiest in. Bacteria are able to multiply at any temperature between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In this range, they can double in number quickly, within 20 minutes or so. But they're particularly good at thriving in warm, moist conditions, as in a water bath.
Additionally, using warm or hot water can also negatively affect the texture of your meat. The water could begin to poach your food, starting the cooking process on the outside while leaving it raw in the middle. Rather than take these risks, you can defrost your meat in a cold water bath. Seal your meat in a leak-proof bag, and submerge it in cold water. Cycle out the water every half an hour for a fresh batch, until your meat has defrosted, and then remove and refrigerate, cleaning the area well.
If you've defrosted more meat than you can use, refreezing it can seem like a good idea. But while it's perfectly safe to do so, it may cause a loss in quality. Defrosting and refreezing meat repeatedly can cause a loss of moisture, and therefore of tenderness. When you freeze meat, the water content inside it turns into ice, and in doing so, the ice can alter the protein structures negatively, rupturing fibers in your product. These abrasions then cause the meat to lose more moisture when defrosted.
If this process is repeated, your meat will just lose more and more moisture, and you'll end up with a dry end product. As well as this, defrosting meat and letting it sit out for a while increases the chances of it developing bacteria, which you may end up freezing if you store it again. As such, it's always better to cook all of your defrosted meat as soon as possible, and then freeze it once you've done so.
While cooked meat can also dry out in the freezer, and may do so more readily because of the moisture lost when it's heated up, at least it'll be safe. In an ideal world, however, you'll only defrost the amount of meat you need each time. Divide your raw meat up into individual portions, and store them in separate freezer bags to make this easier.
Storing your meat well while in the freezer can extend its lifespan hugely. But bag it up wrong, and you could end up wasting money. Meat is susceptible to freezer burn, which occurs when food loses moisture during freezing periods, thanks to the cold and dry air in your appliance. The water on the surface of the food vaporizes, taking the color, texture, and taste of your meat with it. All of this results in your meat becoming unappetizing.
Freezer burn tends to occur when meat has been in the freezer for a long time. But it will happen more quickly if your product is badly wrapped, as its surface will be in constant contact with the dry, cold freezer air. Freezer burn-affected meat will tend to start to take on a somewhat leathery, dry, and discolored look. Sometimes, this occurs in concentrated blotches.
If you have meat that's become freezer burned, it's usually best to throw it out and start again. The best approach to freezer burn, though, is to avoid it entirely by storing your meat well. Wax-coated freezer paper works best here. Wrap your meat tightly in it, with the wax side touching your meat, before popping the package into a freezer bag for extra protection.
It can be easy to assume that frozen meat is sterile and that you can touch it without any fear of consequence. But that's not quite true. Freezing meat may prevent bacteria from growing, but it doesn't kill or eliminate them, instead just stopping them in their tracks until it's warm enough for them to grow again. Washing your hands after handling raw and frozen meat is still essential to reduce any risk of foodborne illnesses.
This becomes particularly important once the frozen meat starts to thaw. As soon as the meat reaches a temperature that the bacteria can multiply, there's no stopping it. Ideally, you should wash your hands immediately after handling any raw meat, using soap and warm water, for a minimum of 20 seconds. But you should also remember to wash anything that the meat comes into contact with, or indeed anything you touch after handling it. This can include any tap or door handles, your phone, any cutting boards or plates the meat has been on, and indeed the soap bottle itself.
Defrosting food can take up space in your kitchen. If you're thawing multiple items for one meal, it can make sense to put them all on one plate. But meat should always be defrosted separately from other items. Meat is especially susceptible to carrying microbes. If you're then placing this raw meat next to other foods, you run the risk of cross-contaminating, especially if you're not cooking the other food items thoroughly.
When defrosting meat, use a separate container and store it on a separate fridge shelf if possible. Remember that bacteria can continue to spread even at cold temperatures. If your fridge isn't at a low enough setting, your meat can go bad. Don't assume that defrosting food items in a fridge together will be safe. You will want to prioritize keeping your meat at the right temperature, rather than other foods which are less likely to cause food poisoning.
Your slow cooker can be your best friend, especially for cooking meat-based dishes, due to its ability to tenderize tougher cuts of meat and break down their connective tissue. But using frozen meat is another story. You should always thaw your meat before you use it in a slow cooker.
By their very nature, slow cookers are slow. They can take a long amount of time to reach a temperature that kills bacteria. In some cases, like if you're using the slow setting, your cooker can be at a tepid temperature for hours – a perfect environment for the bacteria to grow.
It's also worth remembering that slow cookers use a timer, which will go off after a certain amount of time whether your food is cooked or not. If you're using large cuts of frozen meat, your cooker may shut itself off before it's fully cooked through, leaving you with a raw, cold result.