Updated: Apr 16, 2018
The freezer is one of our favorite assets in the kitchen. We've constantly got ours stocked with frozen sausages, fish, ground beef, and other proteins that make quick weeknight meals in a pinch, all without having to run to the grocery store.
There's just one thing: Integrate a freezer pantry into your home cooking and you'll need to become a defrosting pro. Yes, cooking directly from frozen is technically an option, but doing can result in watery protein and an overall loss of quality.
Essentially, you've got three choices when it comes to safely thawing protein. Which one you choose comes down to how much time you have.
IDEAL: The Refrigerator
Say you've got all the time in the world and really planned ahead for tomorrow night's dinner. If that's the case, the absolute best and safest way to defrost your frozen meat is in the refrigerator—your meat will defrost at a consistent temperature that's below the USDA's magical safety mark of 4°C.
Simply place your meat—either in its plastic packaging, or removed and covered with plastic wrap—on a plate in your fridge the night before you plan on cooking it. The plate ensures that any moisture produced during the thawing process doesn't end up all over your fridge. Check back the next night and you'll find perfectly thawed pieces of chicken, fish, or steak ready to get seasoned and cooked. If you're working with a larger piece of meat like a whole chicken or a roast-size cut of beef you'll want to allow more time to ensure the meat thaws all the way through.
Really want to get ahead? Ground meat, stew meat, poultry, and seafood will be safe in the fridge for an additional day or two after defrosting; beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks can keep for 3 to 5 days.
IN A PINCH: Cold Water
More often than not, this is the situation: We get home from work and need to get dinner on the table in less than an hour. In these cases, place your protein in a resealable bag and submerge it in a large bowl of cold tap water. Just as with the refrigerator method, thawing times depend on the size of the protein. Small items like sausage, boneless chicken breasts, and thin cuts of steak such as skirt will defrost within an hour. Thawing larger cuts will take 2 to 3 hours, and you'll need to change out the water every hour to ensure things stay cold.
If you have a change of plans and decide you don't want that chicken breast you've been defrosting in cold water for dinner, make sure you cook it through before putting it back in the fridge or refreezing.
EMERGENCY SITUATION: The Microwave
Finally, if you're completely out of options and in desperate need of some meat, your microwave is an option. Remove the protein from its plastic packaging, place it on a clean plate, and consult your microwave's defrost capabilities. While most modern microwaves come with supposedly "smart" defrost settings, these can still lead to partially cooked food and a less-than-ideal rubbery texture during the thawing process. To make sure this doesn't happen to you, keep a close eye on your protein while it's in the microwave, stopping to check the defrosting progress every 45 seconds or so.
Like the cold water method, anything defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately before being refrigerated or refrozen.