Weeknight Cooking

The Speediest Way to Defrost Frozen Fish

How to defrost frozen fish in as little as 20 minutes—and keep yourself occupied in the meantime.

December  5, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

How to defrost frozen fish in as little as 20 minutes—and keep yourself occupied in the meantime. Because cooked salmon is a lot more appetizing than frozen salmon.

Before I left the house this morning, I repeated the mantra, "Take the salmon out of the freezer. Take the salmon out of the freezer," but over the course of the morning, it got drowned out by other mantras ("Feed the cat. Comb your hair. Drink coffee now.") and by the time I realized I'd left my dinner plans in an icy vortex, I was already on the subway.

While I'd like to blame Monday for my reckless fish abandonment, I've made the same mistake far too often to be able to place the onus on a single day of the week.

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Luckily, I knew what to do: Once I returned home, I fell back on a time-honored tradition known as thaw the fish as quickly as possible. Here's how to do it, and feel free to replace "fish" with your protein of choice—this method works for all manner of frozen-solid meats:

How to Defrost Salmon (and other Frozen Fish) in a Flash

  1. Remove the fish from its packaging and place it into a resealable zip-top bag. Push all the air out, secure the zipper, and place it in a bowl that fits the entire fish and bag.
  2. Place the bowl in your sink under cool running water (keeping the water under 40°F is key here—any warmer can encourage bacteria growth). If the fish floats, weigh it down to submerge it—I find that a jar of peanut butter works swimmingly for this task.
  3. Replace the water every 10 minutes until the fish has thawed, or keep the water running at a very slow rate. (Depending on the size of your fish, this method should take anywhere between 20 minutes to 1 hour.)
  4. Remove the fish from the water (and bag) and cook immediately.

If you're anything like me, waiting 20 to 60 minutes can feel like an eternity when you're hungry. Here are some things to occupy you (see if you can guess which one I did):

  1. Take a yoga class on your smart phone. (This app even lets you choose classes by duration, so you can choose any time between 20 minutes to 1 hour. It's like they knew!) 
  2. Make use of the free oven time to make dessert—these hand pies bake in just 20 to 25 minutes.
  3. Pour yourself a glass of wine and watch an episode of Downton Abbey with your cat.
  4. If your living mate does not have paws (no judgment here), play a round of cards—snacks welcome.
  5. Catch up on short films. Here's a great place to watch films that are just 2 to 30 minutes in length.
  6. Write a post for Food52 on defrosting fish.

A Few of Our Favorite Salmon Recipes

1. Roasted Salmon With Crispy Coconut Kale

This roasted salmon has everything you could possibly want in a weeknight dinner: flaky, flavorful fish, sweet and spicy butternut squash, crispy kale, and flufy coconut rice all in one.

2. Ginger Soy Glazed Salmon

A sweet ginger-soy glaze makes the perfect complement to salmon, and the slow-roasting method keeps the fish moist and tender. 

3. Salmon Moqueca

This salmon-y rendition on moqueca (a traditional Brazilian fish stew) combines bright, punchy flavors—peppers, coconut milk, cilantro, for an ultra-satisfying meal. 

4. Roasted Salmon with a Cheat's Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

If you're not sure whether or not to add this roasted salmon recipe to your rotation, take a word from this reviewer: "I made this for dinner last night and my family loved it—it's the perfect thing for a weeknight."

5. Salmon With a Thai Curry Sauce

 "In spite of the slightly fussy fish poaching step," writes the recipe's author, this is a "remarkably simple dish that bursts with flavor."

What's your favorite method for defrosting dinner in a flash? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Brooklynite March 29, 2019
I'm curious: why bother to move the fish to a resealable zip-top bag? Why not just leave it in its packaging?
Rayna F. January 27, 2021
I believe it's when the fish are not already vacuumed sealed..
Mimi K. September 22, 2016
CAn I just say your writing is brilliant and hilarious. Nicely done. Took all of your advice, except I dont have a cat, but thankfully my Lab likes Downton Abby!
Taylor R. September 15, 2015
Does anyone have any tips for defrosting in the microwave? I have to agree, it scares me a little, but sometimes you have to get dinner going fast, and I worry that running the kitchen sink with 3 roommates is a lot to ask of a tiny kitchen.
amysarah September 15, 2015
The only part of this method where I vary is the running water. I've done it both running, and simply submerged the fish in a bowl of cold water and haven't noticed a big difference, maybe a few minutes - and it's much less wasteful of water.
Leslie S. September 15, 2015
Great suggestion! Just I normally just change out the water rather than keeping it running, but when I do keep it running, I keep it at barely more than a drip which works out to be about the same amount of water!
A G. September 15, 2015
I have a built-in food warmer in my kitchen and when set to the medium setting it defrosts food fairly evenly. Just have to set a timer so I don't forget it's in there.
Leslie S. September 15, 2015
That's brilliant! I've heard you can also put it in a microwave, but for some reason that scares me a little
starlight November 12, 2020
Yeah it should scare you. Raw fish is absorbent enough to harmful chemicals. It would absorb that radiation from your microwave and you would be eating some pretty scary area 52 agent orange stuff
702551 September 15, 2015
Enjoy a beverage and watch a PBS cooking show, either on a web browser or via an Apple TV (or similar device). The content is typically excellent and usually comes in commercial-free 25 minute episodes.

Or just step out of the house for an hour and get a cocktail at a nearby watering hole.
Leslie S. September 15, 2015
Great suggestions! Love the idea of stepping out of the house to get a drink before dinner.
Michael S. September 15, 2015
Good tip. However I don't follow the risk of the 40 degrees due to risk of bacterial growth. Firstly, bacteria take hours to days to replicate in sufficient number to cause food poisoning*. Secondly, in the unlikely event that any bacteria do manage to grow, you're about to cook it - killing the bacteria. So, in conclusion - use warmer water and you can eat sooner!

*if this risk were real you could never eat a medium cooked steak or fish as the oven/pan would have heated the inside to above 40c while not fully cooking it.
Leslie S. September 15, 2015
I've thought about this too—why not use warm water when you're going to cook it anyways? But the USDA warns strongly against it and I figured they must have a good reason for doing so! http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/the-big-thaw-safe-defrosting-methods-for-consumers/CT_Index
HalfPint September 16, 2015
Harold McGee has researched using hot water to thaw meats and concludes that it's perfectly safe to do since the thaw time is so short that bacteria does not have much time to grow,

The USDA does have to err on the side of caution, so they tend to be (in my opinion) a bit overzealous with food handling. Seriously, how long did they recommend that pork be cooked to 160F before revising it to a much lower 145F?
Leslie S. September 16, 2015
Very interesting—thank you for sharing! Makes me feel better for the times I'm a bit lax about my water temperature