The recommended method of thawing frozen meat overnight in the fridge requires advance planning and takes time. As a quicker alternative, many people submerge frozen meat in cold water. But there's an even faster method: hot water baths.
You may have heard that using hot water to thaw frozen meat is a bad idea because the water could cook the surface of the meat or lead to bacterial growth. However, research sponsored by the USDA and published in the Journal of Food Science and in Food Control last June found that for thin cuts of meat -- one-inch steaks, chops and chicken breasts -- thawing in hot water can be done in as little as 10 minutes without reducing the quality of the meat.
Harold McGee reports at the NY Times:
At the U.S.D.A. labs in Beltsville, Md., Janet S. Eastridge and Brian C. Bowker test-thawed more than 200 one-inch-thick beef strip loin steaks in three different groups: some in a refrigerator at 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, some in a constantly circulating water bath at 68 degrees, and some in a water bath at 102 degrees.
Air-thawing in the refrigerator took 18 to 20 hours, while the room-temperature water bath thawed the steaks in about 20 minutes, and the hot-summer-day bath in 11 minutes. These water-bath times are so short that any bacterial growth would remain within safe limits.
Not only that, the water thawing methods may result in better-tasting (or at least juicier) steaks:
The water-thawed steaks actually leaked less juice than the air-thawed steaks.
Similar results were found for chicken breasts, with one-inch chicken breasts quickly thawing in 9 minutes and half-inch breasts thawing in a little over 3 minutes. That's pretty fast.
McGee says his method is to use hot water and immerse the plastic-wrapped meat in a large pot, stirring occasionally.
Don't try this with large roasts; those still are safest thawing in the fridge or in cold water. But for thinner cuts, this hot water bath method may save you some precious time -- great news if you're a last-minute cook.
A Hot-Water Bath for Thawing Meats [The New York Times]