Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
Cooking at home can be a healthy and cheaper alternative to dining out, but proper food preparation is necessary to stay safe. Food prepared in an unsafe manner can cause illness and even death in some extreme cases.
This article will review recommendations for food thawing of various foods based on medical studies and governmental guidance. It can be used as a reference for consumers looking to start cooking more at home.
It’s important that thawing and food safety recommendations come from health organizations and medical studies to ensure safety, because there’s much information online about this topic from uncredentialed food bloggers that’s not cited at all.
Disclaimer: this article doesn’t constitute medical advice and is just the opinion of the writer(s)
Why Should Food Never Be Thawed On The Counter?
Many consumers believe that they can thaw food at room temperature if they’re in a rush, but this is never a safe option. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, thawing food at room temperature above 40° Fahrenheit (F) (4.44° C) allows bacteria to rapidly multiply.
Even if the food is only thawed for an hour at room temperature it can significantly increase the risk of food-borne illness.
How Should I Thaw Food If I’m In A Rush?
Thankfully, room temperature thawing isn’t the only option for consumers in a time pinch.
Thawing food using cold water is an option that’s nearly as time-efficient as thawing on the countertop, but much safer. Food should be sealed in a package that won’t leak (these are usually plastic), and fully submerged in water.
The USDA recommends changing the water every 30 minutes to ensure a safe, cool water temperature.
Generally, a pound of less of meat may thaw in 60 minutes or less using this method while larger amounts may take several hours.
Below are some food-specific recommendations for questions that are commonly asked about thawing:
Why Should You Rotate Food When Thawing It?
Rotating food is a safety measure to ensure evenly distributed internal temperature. The USDA recommends rotating meat when defrosting in the microwave to even the thawing.
Usually only one rotation is necessary to ensure both sides of the food are properly thawed. Rotating the food helps ensure that when you begin cooking it, there’s not a section that’s still fully or partially frozen.
How to Thaw Bacon?
The USDA describes the three safe ways to thaw bacon: in the refrigerator, under cold water and in the microwave.
Because bacon strips are usually quite narrow, they can thaw quickly. Leaving bacon overnight in the fridge is the most convenient way to thaw, but the microwave is the quickest.
It’s worth noting that the USDA suggests bacon is safe to cook directly from a frozen state, but this may negatively impact taste.
How Long Can Thawed Chicken Stay in the Fridge?
There is a lot of misinformation online about the safety of thawed chicken, with many recommendations for storage times that are greater than the research-based guideline.
The USDA clearly states that thawed chicken should be used within two days maximum while in the fridge.
This doesn’t include time thawing, so if a whole chicken took one full day to thaw, it can be safely used two full days after that first day it was spent thawing, but not more.
How to Thaw Frozen Spinach?
Even though thawing frozen vegetables is generally less risky than thawing frozen meat, it’s still important to do it right.
Frozen spinach can be quickly thawed in the microwave and eaten or cooked immediately after.
For consumers looking to eat spinach raw, we recommend thawing in the fridge, because thawing in the microwave can quickly melt the ice and leave the finished product a bit runny and watery.
For consumers looking to cook the spinach after thawing, using the microwave to thaw is the most convenient option.
How to Thaw Scallops?
According to the FDA, the same thawing safety rules apply to thawing seafood as apply to thawing meats.
Scallops can be thawed in the fridge, under cold water, or in the microwave but should never be thawed in warm water or on the countertop.
Since scallops are small and thaw relatively quickly, we recommend a cold water thaw.
How Long to Thaw a Ham?
Ham is one of the most popular American foods served on Thanksgiving, and can take a while to safely thaw.
The USDA suggests thawing in the fridge, and allowing a conservative 4 to 6 hours to thaw per pound of ham. This means that a 5 pound ham should take around 30 hours to thaw.
We believe that the fridge is the safest method for thawing larger meats like ham, because the risk of improperly thawing using faster methods increases with increasing size of the meat.
Can You Refreeze Thawed Chicken?
If you thaw your chicken but then decide you’re not yet ready to cook it, no problem because it’s totally safe to refreeze chicken after thawing according to the USDA.
The chicken isn’t likely to taste as good after the second thawing, since it loses significant moisture during the first round of thawing, but it’s still a safe and economical choice to re-freeze and cook it later if necessary.
How to Thaw Ground Turkey?
Ground turkey will thaw quicker than whole turkey, and can be thawed safely in the fridge, under cold water or in the microwave.
The USDA provides recommendations on thaw timing for whole turkey but not ground turkey.
We’d recommend a conservative overnight thaw in the fridge before cooking previously-frozen ground turkey.
Do Thawing Plates Work?
Thawing plates are made of metals that are good at conducting heat, and thus can decrease thawing time.
We don’t recommend thawing plates because they necessitate thawing at room temperature, which we don’t recommend for safety reasons.
There is little medical research backing the safety and efficacy of these products, and at least one leading thawing plate company has been issued a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for misleading and potentially harmful claims.
It’s safer, cheaper and more effective to just thaw your meat in the fridge.
How to Thaw Frozen Steak?
It’s safe to thaw frozen steak in the fridge, microwave or under cold water, in line with the USDA thawing recommendations for meat generally.
We recommend thawing in the fridge overnight since it’s the most convenient and time-efficient manner of thawing frozen steak.
Cold water thawing works just as well but takes a lot of prep and effort.
Thawing in the microwave is the best way to thaw steak fast, but the steak must be cooked immediately after to ensure no buildup of bacteria.
How Long Can Thawed Shrimp Stay in the Fridge?
Because the USDA doesn’t provide recommendations for food safety of thawed seafood, we don’t recommend leaving thawed shrimp in the fridge.
We recommend cooking shrimp immediately post-thawing (or at least within the hour). There is misleading information online from another health publisher stating that the USDA provides a recommendation that thawed shrimp is safe for 1 to 2 days in the fridge.
This is false and the USDA has not published such information.
Do You Recommend Miracle Thaw?
Miracle Thaw is a thawing plate that claims to be able to thaw foods quicker than traditional methods.
They have been served a complaint by the FTC, and the complaint reads that “laboratory testing does not prove that food items defrosted or thawed on Miracle Thaw will not develop harmful or unsafe levels of bacteria.”
We do not recommend Miracle Thaw or any other thawing plate, because there is no proof of efficacy and even more importantly there are safety concerns involving potential bacterial buildup and food-borne illness risk.
How to Thaw Frozen Bread
Frozen bread is one of the only foods that can be safely thawed at room temperature, according to a government food safety publication.
Bread slices should thaw in 10 minutes or so, while whole loaves unsliced may take up to 5 hours to thaw.
We recommend purchasing frozen bread that is sliced since this will significantly reduce thawing time at room temperature.
Proper thawing procedures are important to know if you’re cooking at home, but don’t have to be complicated.
Generally thawing overnight in the fridge is the easiest way to thaw all manners of food products, from frozen meats to frozen vegetables.
Bread can be thawed on the countertop, and is the only food product safe to thaw at room temperature.
Consumers looking to thaw meat or seafood fast should consider using the microwave on the defrost setting to thaw.
We hope this guide was useful and can help you make safe food preparation decisions. Feel free to bookmark this page in your browser and use it as a guideline for future meals.