Like most home cooks, I appreciate a handy shortcut every now and then—whether it's using canned beans over dried or relying on my food processor to chop vegetables. Actually, I don't just appreciate them, I rely on them. During the week, I often find myself whipping up something last-minute and woefully unprepared. So it's rare for me to incorporate anything into my routine that requires extra time or planning.
Except when it comes to defrosting meat.
I wasn't always this way; I used to grab a plastic-wrapped chicken breast or filet mignon from the freezer 20 minutes before it needed to hit the pan or oven and frantically run it under warm water (or, gasp, stick it in the microwave) until it had almost thawed all the way through.
But after a chat with Grant Hon, the executive chef of Omaha Steaks (small-scale Nebraska butcher–turned–frozen meat empire), I've learned there's really only one sure-fire way to defrost meat and still maintain quality of flavor.
"For me, the best method is always in the fridge," says Hon. "It's low and slow to retain as much juice as possible."
How early you pull the pieces of meat (be it chicken, steak, or pork) out of the freezer and toss 'em in the fridge depends on how they're packed, he adds. "If they're individually vacuum-packed, the night before you cook them is probably alright; most consumer refrigerators run at about 38°F, so that should give you enough temperature to get them defrosted so you're ready to cook them the next day." If they're packed grocery store–style (either wrapped in paper or plastic-wrapped on a styrofoam tray), Hon says you might want to give yourself a day and a half or two days to make sure they defrost all the way through to the center.
It's less about the type of meat, and more about the thickness, and whether or not it's boneless. For example, that's why two boneless turkey breasts will only take a day or so to defrost, whereas an entire Thanksgiving bird can take up to a week to thaw in the fridge.
If, as I often have, you do forget to move your frozen meat into the fridge 24 hours (or more) before dinner, there is a speedier trick for thawing it quickly. And no, it's not leaving it out on the counter or running it under warm water; Hon says that can actually lead to food safety issues, as both methods can cause bacteria to grow on the outside layer of the meat, which you obviously don't want.
His speed thawing method, however, is safe: Put the meat (still wrapped in its packaging) in a bowl in the sink and run a steady stream of cool water on it for about 30 minutes. This keeps the meat at a safe temperature as it thaws while still retaining those meaty juices. And if you're worried about being wasteful, Hon says to fill the bowl with water first and then just keep a very slow trickle running over the bowl to keep it flowing.
For when you're in an absolute pinch, Hon concedes that the microwave will work fine, but it is "not your friend" if you want a tender, flavorful piece of meat. Especially if you're working with chicken breast: "You're gonna start to cook it, and now that it's cooked, it definitely doesn't have as much moisture and it gets what I refer to as that rubber band-y kind of feel to it."
And if you're wondering just how long you can keep meat in the freezer before it gets unsavory, Hon's got an answer for that, too: There's nothing from a food-safety standpoint that dictates when frozen meat goes bad (if it's frozen, it's going to be safe to eat for a good long while), but it will "degrade in quality and flavor over time," he says.
To tell whether or not a piece of frozen meat is still in its prime, he looks for ice crystals, aka frostbite. Those ice crystals indicate that your freezer is pulling moisture out of the meat, he explains, which leads to a tough, less delicious final product. So if you've got any icicle-covered frozen strawberries (as I do, right now) or pork chops, they're probably not gonna taste great, though they'll still be safe to eat.
So the next time you plan on cooking up a few rib-eyes or chicken breasts or even spare ribs, make sure you give yourself enough time to thaw them out properly in the fridge—your taste buds will thank you.