A short guide to defrosting meat

May 30th, 2012

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Transforming frozen meat into a delicious meal is a multi-part process.  Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, cooking meat begins the defrosting process, which can be far trickier than you’d expect to get just right.

We’ve previously looked at the best ways to store your meat.  Now, here are a few tips on the best ways to defrost your meat quickly and safely, to make cooking easier, the results tastier, and your loved ones healthier.

Notes on freezing, defrosting and bacteria

Let’s look at exactly what freezing, defrosting and cooking DO and DO NOT do to germs:

  • Freezing meat DOES NOT kill the germs found on food that can cause food poisoning and other nasty illnesses.
  • Freezing meat DOES put those germs into suspended animation, stopping them from feeding on your food and making it decay.
  • When your meat defrosts and returns to room temperature, the germs wake back up, and can start multiplying rapidly in the right conditions (the typical “danger zone” is between 5°C and 57°C).
  • Cooking food DOES NOT necessarily eliminate all the germs – if they’ve been allowed to multiply to sufficient numbers, some can survive the cooking process.
  • Cooking DOES NOT eliminate all of the toxins that bacteria sometimes generate while multiplying, which can also make you sick.

Ways you can defrost meat:

Don’t bother

Technically, you don’t NEED to defrost meat.  You could take a frozen steak, slap it on the grill, and cook it long and hard enough to eat.  The germs won’t get a chance to wake up and breed before the cooking process wipes them out, and it’s much quicker and easier than waiting for the meat to defrost.

That said, it’s often much more difficult to properly cook meat that’s still frozen.  The extremes of temperature involved mean that it’s very easy to overcook or undercook parts of the meat, especially if you’re dealing with big chunks.  Undercooked meat can be a health risk, while overcooked meat just doesn’t taste that great.

Leave meat in the fridge

This is one of the safer ways to defrost meat, as while the temperature in the fridge is high enough to thaw the meat, it’s low enough that most germs won’t wake up and start multiplying.

Just place the meat on a dish and leave it in the fridge.  Keep it covered to prevent the meaty aroma from getting into the cheeses, and to limit the spread of any fridgeborne germs.

One downside of this method is that it tends to take longer to fully defrost the meat, especially big pieces, which is bad when you’re in a hurry.

Leave meat on the bench/in the sink

While very simple and fairly fast, this methods has its share of health risks.

Depending on the room temperature and how long the meat is left out, the meat could collect any germs living on the kitchen benchtop or in the sink, which can then multiply rapidly when the meat reaches the right temperature.  The meat could spread its germs to the surface its sitting on, infecting any other food you may prepare there.

The less time you leave meat exposed to the elements the better, so benchtop/sink defrosting is better for smaller pieces of meat that will thaw quickly.

Defrost meat in water

Defrosting meat in cold water works a lot like defrosting in the fridge; raising the temperature enough to melt the ice, but not enough to allow the bacteria to breed.

If you’re defrosting a big piece of meat that’s going to take a while to thaw, be sure to top up the water to keep it cool – if the water warms up too much, the meat’s temperature will hit that perfect “sweet spot” for breeding germs.

While you may think that plunging meat into warm or hot water will quickly defrost it while at the same time killing the germs, it’s more likely that the meat’s surface temperature will jump straight to the bacteria-breeding danger zone, and stay that way while the frozen inside thaws.  Sticking with cold water is safer, even if it takes longer.

Microwave defrosting

Defrosting meat in the microwave is one of the quickest ways to prepare your meat for cooking, but one of the trickiest methods to get just right.

To ensure that your meat defrosts evenly, and doesn’t end up with nearly-cooked edges and a frozen centre, try to divide the meat into small, even-sized portions rather than a single chunk prior to defrosting.  Microwave energy only penetrates 1-2 inches through the surface of meat, so if your meat is thicker than that, it will take longer to defrost with residual heat.  If part of your meat is thicker than the rest, keep that end on the outer edge of the turntable to ensure even exposure to the Magnetron that shoots out the microwaves.

If possible, place the meat on a microwave-safe rack or trivet so that it won’t end up sitting in the hot defrosted juices, which can prematurely cook the meat.

Many newer microwaves include an automatic Defrost Program that lets you enter the weight of your meat, and the machine picks the best settings to get the job done.  Even more advanced models can do this automatically with the touch of a single button!

Those of us without high-tech microwaves have to sort this out the old-fashioned way.  As every microwave is different, defrosting times vary, so check your microwave’s manual for guidelines.  In general though, around ten minutes per kilogram on a low power setting (30% to 50%) should be enough to defrost most meat.  Keep a close eye on it though, and turn it over or cut it into smaller pieces as required.

Final tip – Cook straight away

Regardless of the method you use, once your meat has defrosted, be sure to get it cooking as soon as possible.  The longer it is left at room temperature, the more opportunities germs will have to get their microscopic claws into your food and start breeding.

Your say

How do you normally defrost your meat?  What other tricks do you use to keep your kitchen clean and your food germ-free?

Mark joined Appliances Online in November 2011 and has since learned more than he ever expected to know about appliances. He enjoys looking for new and unusual ways for to solve everyday problems using typical household appliances. When he’s not toiling at the desks of Appliances Online and Big Brown Box, he tries to find time to write the next big bestseller and draw satirical cartoons, but is too easily distracted by TV, music and video games. Mark’s favourite appliance is the Dyson Groom Tool, as he loves the concept of vacuuming your dog. Google+

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