Cooking Tips
How to Quickly Defrost Meat (Without Using the Microwave)
For thinner cuts, here's how to go from frozen to thawed in an hour or less.
09-15-2021
Mari Levine

We’ve all done it: Faced with a frozen-solid chicken cutlet or steak and looking to expedite the defrosting process, we’ve turned to the microwave. It has a setting for this, we tell ourselves. How bad could it be? A few minutes later, after a half-frozen, half-cooked piece of meat emerges, we kick ourselves for being so optimistic.

So what’s the best way to defrost meat when you’re in a hurry? There are a couple of options.

“To defrost meat, you want heat to get into the meat, and it’s very inefficient to wait for heat to travel into the meat through the air, because air is a fantastic insulator,” explains senior science editor Paul Adams. “So a good technique involves getting as much of the meat as possible in contact with a material that conducts heat well, such as metal or water.”

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First things first: Thicker cuts will always take at least several hours to defrost. If your meat is an inch thick or more, the best and safest way to defrost it is in the refrigerator overnight. This requires planning ahead: For one-inch-thick steaks, chops, and boneless chicken breasts, this usually takes between eight and 12 hours. For thicker steaks, chops, and bone-in chicken parts, it can take up to 24 hours. And for whole chickens, turkeys, and roasts, you should budget five hours per pound.

But if you have room in your refrigerator, you can speed this up by leaving the large frozen roast or whole bird wrapped in the original packaging and placing it in a large bucket of cold water, then setting it in the fridge. Plan on 30 minutes of defrosting for every 1 pound.

For thinner cuts, there are two ways to go from frozen to thawed in an hour or less. One option is to place the meat on a heavy cast-iron or steel pan at room temperature. If you have a second pan, place it on top. The metal’s rapid heat transfer safely thaws the meat in about an hour.

Have even less time? Soak frozen cuts such as chops, steaks, cutlets, and fish fillets in hot water. This method was popularized by food scientist Harold McGee, and it’s been studied by and won approval from the USDA. Simply seal the individual steaks or chops in zipper-lock bags, squeezing out as much air as possible, and submerge the packages in very hot (140-degree) water. Cuts will take roughly 12 minutes to thaw, which is fast enough that the rate of bacterial growth falls into the “safe” category, and the meat doesn’t start to cook.

Defrosted this way, chicken breasts may turn slightly opaque, but we’ve found that once cooked, it’s indistinguishable from meat defrosted in the refrigerator. (The same can’t be said for that half-cooked meat defrosted in the microwave.)