3 Ways to Thaw Meat Safely to Keep Foodborne Illness at Bay

Don't take any risks with your main course. Instead, learn the three ways to thaw meat safely and why it's so important.

Updated December 11, 2023
meat stored in the fridge

Every year, one brave soul in the family sends out that important reminder to pull your turkey out of the freezer so it can defrost in time. Whether you're planning a big holiday meal or simply making dinner, thawing meat safely is essential for avoiding food poisoning and other nasty side effects. When you freeze meat, you preserve everything in and on it — including the dormant bacteria that has hitched a ride. In Jurassic Park, life finds a way, but in our kitchens, that E. coli will stay gone forever. 

Three Methods to Thaw Meat Safely

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are only three ways you can safely thaw meat: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Any other method risks portions of the meat becoming too warm and too hospitable for dangerous bacteria. The USDA describes any temperature between 40°F and 140°F (4°C-60°C) as the "danger zone," meaning these temperatures are ideal for bacteria growth. Even while you're thawing it, your meat or poultry should stay below 40°F.

How to Thaw Meat in the Refrigerator

When you're prepping for dinner, you could always do with a few shortcuts. With the fridge being such a short distance from the freezer, it's the answer to all your defrosting prayers. Because your fridge keeps an average temperature between 35°F (2°C) and 40°F, it's safe to thaw out meat (including poultry). Since thawing in the fridge requires a little advanced planning (for some cuts, it can take 24 hours to fully thaw), this isn't the method to go with if you're running low on time.

How long it takes to thaw your meat will depend on the size of the cut and your fridge's temperature, so you'll have to play around with your fridge's settings to see what time/setting combo works best for you. 

In just four steps, you can thaw your frozen meats in the fridge: 

  1. Take the meat out of the freezer.
  2. Keep the meat in the package/container or put in a clean plastic bag.
  3. Place the meat in a dish so that when it thaws, the liquids don't drip on other foods.
  4. Put the meat in the refrigerator on a low shelf and monitor the progress.
Need to Know

It's perfectly safe to refreeze foods you've thawed out in the fridge so long as you haven't cooked them yet. 

How to Thaw Meat in Cold Water

The next quickest method to thawing frozen meat safely is using cold water. It'll take about 30 minutes per pound of meat when thawing in cold water, so keep that in mind when preparing meals. If your kiddo forgot to pull the meat out of the freezer before school like you asked, this is a great same-day method to turn to. Although using cold water thaws the meat faster than the refrigerator thawing method, it's more hands-on and requires a lot more of your attention. 

Turn on the tap and get to defrosting with these four steps: 

  1. Fill the kitchen sink or a large bowl with cold water. Don't use hot or warm water; this can cause bacteria to grow and flourish.
  2. Place the frozen meat in a leak-proof bag or package so it won't absorb sink water or produce a watery-tasting meat product.
  3. Submerge the package of meat in the water.
  4. Change the water to new cold water every 30 minutes.
Need to Know

The USDA doesn't recommend that you refreeze any meats that you've thawed out using cold water. 

How to Thaw Meat in the Microwave

The microwave is the fastest method of thawing meat safely, but your sausage patties can get half-cooked in the blink of an eye. Since microwaves tend to cook things unevenly, some of your meat may reach danger zone temperatures and will need to be immediately cooked, while other parts will still be covered in ice crystals. 

Here's how to thaw your meat in the microwave:

  1. Remove plastic wrap or styrofoam packaging from your meat.
  2. Place it on a microwave safe dish.
  3. Defrost using your microwaves time and weight settings. 
  4. Start the microwave. Make sure you check on it frequently! To get an even thaw, you might need to move the dish or stir the pieces of meat from time to time.
Need to Know

You should never refreeze meat you've defrosted in the microwave. 

Thawing a Turkey or Other Large Cut of Meat

We've all seen the Thanksgiving memes; if you're seeing this now it's too late to put your turkey in the fridge. According to the USDA, thawing your turkey in the refrigerator is the best method. If you're in a pinch and the turkey's not completely thawed out, you can use the cold-water method, though hefting a whole bird into a bag to protect it from the water is a sight we'd like to see.

When thawing turkey in the refrigerator, remember to put your turkey on a dish so the thawing juices don't drip onto your other food. We definitely ruined a few apples this past year because our turkey was a little lopsided on the platter. Because thawing out a turkey can take several days, you've got to plan in advance how early you need to pull it out.

Not sure how long it'll take? We've got a handy chart to help you: 

Turkey Size Refrigerator Thawing Cold Water Thawing
4 to 12 pounds  1-3 days 2-6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 3-4 days 6-8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 4-5 days 8-10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 5-6 days 10-12 hours

Helpful Tips to Safely Thaw Every Time

No matter the method you use, thawing meat takes a little finesse. The more you do it, the easier it'll be to guesstimate timing and settings. But if you're new to the game, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind.

  • If you don't like the taste of microwaved meat and don't have time to use one of the other methods, you can cook food in its frozen state. According to the USDA, cooking frozen meats takes about 1.5 times as long to cook as thawed meats do. 
  • Always wash your hands after handling meat, whether it is frozen or thawed. Thoroughly wash your hands before touching other parts of the meal, such as salads, vegetables, and other side dishes.
  • Wash the countertops and kitchen surfaces if the raw meat ever comes into contact with them. Use bleach to sterilize cutting boards, and wash any meat-thawing dishes in hot water.
  • Don't put cooked meat back into the container the raw meat was thawed in. That's some bacterial cross-contamination you don't want to see. 
  • If you hate having to thaw meat, go to the store and buy meat fresh and unfrozen, Then just store it in the fridge for the number of days allowed on the package. 

Make Things Delicious Instead of Dangerous

Cutting corners sounds fun until you make yourself sick because of it. Although it may be tempting to thaw your meat in hot water or on the counter, safety is more important than convenience. Take the time to defrost your meat correctly so your meals always turn out delicious and safe. 

3 Ways to Thaw Meat Safely to Keep Foodborne Illness at Bay