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How to safely thaw meat and poultry

General Notes on Thawing

We get this question a lot especially around the holidays. There are basically two easy methods for safe thawing. We recommend refrigerator thawing or cold water thawing if you're in a time crunch. Never thaw your precious meat in the microwave or cook it while still frozen as the meat will most likely cook unevenly.

For safety reasons, please don't let your meat, fish or poultry sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. Although this is not necessarily in a time crunch, we like to leave our completely thawed meat, fish or poultry sit out on the counter while we do the meal prep for 30 to 60 minutes so it comes to room temperature before cooking. This allows the item to cook the most evenly.

Additionally, never thaw foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag; out on the kitchen counter for more than two hours, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat. The "Danger Zone" is a temperature range between 40 and 140 °F — the temperature where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly.

Every Day Thawing Advice

Refrigerator Thawing
Planning ahead is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved. A large frozen item 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.

  1. Some areas of your refrigerator may keep food colder than other areas.
  2. Food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 °F than one set at 40 °F.
  3. Be sure to thaw items on a plate or in a bowl in case the packaging leaks. We also recommend that you thaw on the bottom shelf to prevent any leak from dripping on to food below.
After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, and fish, should remain safe and in good quality for an additional day or two before cooking; red meat cuts, such as beef or lamb roasts, chops and steaks, should remain safe for 3 to 5 days.

Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality (we think this loss of quality is minimal and most people won't notice).

Cold 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. We recommend putting our packaged products into a plastic bag for double protection.

The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small packages of meat, poultry or fish (about a pound) may thaw in an hour or less. A 3 to 4 lb package may take 2 to 3 hours.

If thawed completely, the food must be cooked immediately. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.

Microwave Thawing
We think this method is extremely risky with grass-fed meat and pastured poultry because it thaws the item unevenly. So we do not recommend it, however, the USDA seems to think it's fine...

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). Not fully cooking partially cooked food immediately 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. Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.

Cooking Without Thawing
We don't recommend this method unless you're using a sous vide machine because the item could cook unevenly (the outside could be done and the inside raw). However, here's what the USDA has to say: "When there is not enough time to thaw frozen foods, or you're simply in a hurry, just remember: it is safe to cook foods from the frozen state. The cooking will take approximately 50% longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry." Since this method requires 50% longer cook times, why not just use the cold water method? That's our two cents any.

How to Thaw a Whole Turkey

"The Big Thaw"
Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during "the big thaw." While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.

Immediately after receiving your turkey, take it out of the cooler/box and store it in the freezer for later use. When you're ready to cook it, we recommended two safe ways to thaw it: in the refrigerator or in cold water. 

Do not leave a package of frozen meat or poultry on the counter for more than 2 hours. It is not at a safe temperature and will hit the "danger zone". Frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored.

Refrigerator Thawing
Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below. Place the turkey in a container on the bottom shelf to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods. During the last few hours of thawing, you may want to remove the turkey from the plastic packaging, wash/pat dry it and then let it air dry uncovered in the fridge. This is particularly helpful when deep frying a turkey.

Refrigerator Thawing Times Whole turkey:
12 pounds or less — 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days

Using this method, a thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. This flexibility will allow you to brine your turkey if desired.

Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality (although we think this loss of quality is so minimal that most people won't notice).

Cold Water Thawing
Allow about 30 minutes per pound.

First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product. We recommend double bagging our turkeys for added protection.

Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times Whole Turkey:
4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours

A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.

Microwave Thawing
We do not recommend using this method with pastured turkeys. It may be "safe" but the turkey might thaw unevenly making it very hard to cook without drying out the breasts.

Follow the microwave oven manufacturer's instruction when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed.

A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately.

*Source: USDA