Buying meat when it’s on sale and then freezing it for when you need it is great in theory. However, in practice, it’s incredibly difficult (some might even say impossible) to remember to thaw that meat ahead of time. The recommended method of thawing frozen meat overnight in the fridge can not only take more than a day, it also requires planning. As a speedier alternative, many people submerge frozen meat in cold water. But there’s an even faster method: hot water baths.
Previously you may have heard that using hot water to thaw frozen meat is a bad idea because the water would cook the surface of the meat or lead to bacterial growth. But research sponsored by the USDA and published in the Journal of Food Science and in Food Control in 2011 found that at least 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 in the New York 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 (2.5cm-thick) beef strip loin steaks in three different groups: some in a refrigerator at 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (3 to 4 degrees Celsius), some in a constantly circulating water bath at 68 degrees (20 degrees Celsius), and some in a water bath at 102 degrees (39 degrees Celsius).
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 50-degree tap water and immerse the plastic-wrapped meat in the large pot, stirring occasionally. Stirring is important because it prevents a cold zone from developing around the food, insulating it from the remaining warm water. So either stir that water occasionally, or run a steady drip of hot water in the bath. Also, you need to cook any meat you’ve defrosted after thawing it in a hot water bath; there’s no refreezing.
Don’t try this with large roasts or turkeys, though, as 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.
This story was originally published in 2012 and was updated on 11/12/19 to provide more thorough and current information.