Freezing food is an incredibly convenient way to save it, but thawing it is such a hassle. Here are the best (and quickest) ways to thaw just about any food.
Before we get to thawing, you should know some of the best practices to freeze food. If it's not frozen right in the first place, the thawing process will be inconsistent and there's a higher chance of developing bacteria. The Kitchn claims to have a foolproof method that keeps frozen meats good for three months:
When packaging meats for the freezer, the most important thing is to protect them from exposure to air. Wrap meats very tightly in either plastic wrap or freezer paper, pressing the wrapping right up against the surface of the meat. Next, wrap another layer of aluminium foil around the meat or seal it inside a zip-top freezer bag. Packaged like this, meat can be kept frozen for at least three months.
Now that you have your meat, you need to know how to thaw it correctly for the best taste.
Avoid Room Temperature
The first rule of thaw club is that we don't talk about room temperatures. Just keeping your frozen food out on the countertop for a long time is asking for trouble. But it's a common cooking mistake that you can fix easily:
Remember, the "danger zone" for bacterial growth in food is between 40°F and 140°F (5°C and 60°C), and sitting right in the middle of that is "room temperature," around 68°-70°F (20°-22°C). A couple of hours at room temperature will certainly make sure that the meat is thawed, but it's a field day for bacterial growth as well, especially as the deeper parts of your cut begin to come up to temp while the outsides have been room temperature for hours.
If you are going to thoroughly cook it later, there's a good chance that bacteria like E. Coli will get destroyed in the process. But as a general safety practice, it's better to avoid thawing at room temperature. So what are your alternatives?
The Old Faithful: Pop It Into The Fridge
Works with: Meat, fruits, some vegetables, frozen foods
The most common thawing technique, and one of the safest, is to take your frozen food out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator. This takes longer than any other process, but you are assured that since it is confined to the cold environment of your fridge, it won't develop bacteria.
The other benefit is that a fridge's temperature is controlled, so your thawing process is more even. You do need to make sure that the temperature is 4 degrees Celsius or below. Additionally, there isn't a rapid cool-down from the freezing temperature so again, you get some uniformity. The USDA adds that the freezer-to-fridge process also keeps thawed food safer for longer and retains the ability to refreeze:
After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, seafood, should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before cooking; red meat cuts (such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks) 3 to 5 days. Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.
But the freezer-to-fridge method takes a lot of time. Depending on the size of your food, you might have to leave it in the fridge for anywhere from 8-24 hours. Not everyone plans their meals that far in advance.
Quick & Quality: Use A Cold Water Bath
Works with: Meat, fruits
If you plan on cooking the food immediately and need to thaw it quickly, a cold water bath is a good option. It does take attention though, so it's not going to be as simple as "put it and forget it" that you get in the fridge.
You will need to wrap your food in a sealed plastic bag. Make sure there are no leaks. If your frozen food is already in a plastic bag, still throw it into a Ziploc bag as a precaution. Since we are going to submerge this in water, you're better to be safe than sorry.
Grab a bowl in which your frozen food can fit and fill it with cold tap water. Submerge your sealed food into this water. You will need to change the water whenever it comes to room temperature -- on average, this is about 30 minutes, but it could vary depending on your climate, so pay attention.
If that seems like too much trouble, The Kitchn says that you can also keep it running under a rapidly dripping tap as long as the water is cool to the touch. But that will use up a lot more water and seems shamelessly wasteful.
Depending on the size and nature of your food, it will defrost in an hour or lesser, but larger frozen foods (like a whole turkey) can take up to 3 hours.
The USDA makes one good point on this topic: you need to cook the food after a cold water bath. It can't be refrozen.
Last-Minute For Thin Cuts: Use A Hot Water Bath
Works with: Meat, fruits
When you need your meat thawed as quickly as possible, your best bet is probably a hot water bath. But you will need water that is at least 60 degrees Celsius. Two studies back this up: The USDA tested the method with beef steaks, while the Utah State University used chicken breasts.
The hot water bath is meant for thin cuts only though, so your large roasts and whole turkeys are still left best in the fridge. But for a quick steak, it's a great last-minute solution.
In the tests, the beef thawed in 11 minutes at 40 degrees, while the chicken thawed in 8.5 minutes at 60 degrees. Both studies found that not only did a hot water bath speed up the process over refrigeration, but tasters could not tell the difference between fridge-thawed and hot-water-thawed meats later.
But as The New York Times warns, your results will vary and this method isn't for everyone:
Quick-thawing is easy to adopt in the home kitchen. But don't expect your thaw times to match the lab times I've quoted unless you have an immersion circulator or another method to keep the water in motion and at a constant temperature. If the water is still, a cold zone develops around the food and insulates it from the remaining warm water. And without infusions of hot water or heat from a burner, the icy food cools the water bath.
To avoid the still water, it's best to stir it occasionally, or run a steady drip of hot water in the bath. And yeah, like the cold water bath, you need to cook this after thawing, there's no refreezing.
Immediate Cooking: Microwave It
Works with: Meat, fruits, some vegetables, frozen foods
This isn't a method you should use unless you want to cook immediately. Chances are, you need to prep other things so the half-hour needed for the cold water bath is a reliable option in most cases. But just in case you need your fix right now, then turn to the microwave and its defrost setting.
There are a few things to keep in mind here. The biggest problem with thawing in the microwave is that ovens have hot spots which heat your food unevenly and can even start cooking your food. So you need to be ready to cook as soon as thawing is done.
Of course, for the microwave process, you need to remove all plastics and keep the meat in a microwave-safe bowl or plate. You will also need to be careful not to handle the meat after you have thawed it in the microwave, says the USDA:
Holding partially cooked food 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.
As with the hot water bath method, this is best left for thinner slices than large meats. If you do need to microwave larger meats, then follow the manufacturer's instructions on the back.
Speed It Up: Pour Some Vinegar On It
Works with: Meat
To fire it up if you can't get enough, Lifehackery suggests you pour some vinegar on it. This is a two-in-one trick since it speeds up the process while also tenderizing the meat. you can quicken the thawing time while also making the meat tender. The vinegar lowers the freezing temperature while its acid breaks down connective tissues. And it can be rinsed off later if necessary.
Boil It: Don't Thaw Vegies, Cook Them
Works with: All vegetables
Contrary to what you may have heard, most frozen vegetables don't need to be thawed. You are better off putting them directly in boiling water. Vegetables are usually flash-frozen directly after picking, which means they retain most of their nutrients. The thawing process can release these nutrients. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) notes a few exceptions that should be partially thawed:
Most frozen vegetables should be cooked without thawing first. Corn on the cob should be partially thawed before cooking in order for the cob to be heated through by the time the corn is cooked. Letting the corn sit after thawing or cooking causes sogginess. Leafy greens, such as turnip greens and spinach, cook more evenly if partially thawed before cooking.
The cooking process is up to you. The NCHFP recommends putting them directly in boiling water, with a ratio of ½ cup of water to a pint package. The Kitchn finds that boiling frozen vegies makes them icky, so they recommend popping them into the microwave with the water going 1/3rd the way up the side of the vegetables.
With either method, you want to remember one thing. Frozen vegetables will release water rapidly, so take that into account when adding your own water. It's easy to have a mushy mess by not factoring in the water from the vegetables themselves.
When Can You Refreeze Thawed Food?
This is a simple rule to follow: Unless you have opted for the refrigeration method of thawing, you should never refreeze thawed food as is. You can cook the food and freeze it again, though.
Sometimes, you may be halfway through the thawing process when you decide you don't need the frozen food and want to pop it back in. How do you tell if the food has completely thawed or not? The safest way is to use an appliance thermometer and check if it has hit 4 degrees Celsius. If it's still below that, you can safely pop it back into the freezer. Above that, don't risk it.