Proper Thawing Techniques Prevent Potential Growth of Harmful Bacteria
Proper thawing techniques for meat, poultry and seafood are one of the first things taught in culinary schools…it’s part of a semester-long “food safety” course and while it is seemingly boring at the time, it is imperative to know, particularly if you plan on eating what you cook.
Most experienced cooks will probably skim past this, thinking, “blah, blah, blah” but, if you prepare and serve food to others, you certainly want to ensure you are implementing proper food safety techniques. If you’ve ever gotten sick after eating at a friend’s house, you’ll totally understand where I’m coming from.
Foodborne illness is caused by harmful bacteria, viruses, chemicals and parasites in food. While there are many ways to prevent foodborne illness, properly thawing meat is an important step in ensuring safe food.
Freezing meat preserves the shelf-life of meat, (allowing for safe preparation at a later date), and affords us to purchase normally expensive meats at a sale price and freeze for later use. However, if you do not thaw the meat properly, you’ve not only wasted your money, but you run the risk of making your friends and family sick…literally.
NEVER THAW BEEF, POULTRY, SEAFOOD OR PORK AT ROOM TEMPERATURE OR IN WARM OR TEPID WATER
Temperature is Vital
Freezing is 32ºF and 0ºC. Refrigerator temperatures should be at least 40ºF or 4.4ºC. Boiling is 212ºF or 100ºC. In between freezing and boiling, there is an area called The Danger Zone, where temperatures are perfect for harmful bacterial, parasitic and viral growth.
Beef, pork, poultry and seafood can be safely thawed in the refrigerator. The meat should always remain in its original packaging. Poultry should always be thawed on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Beef and seafood can be stored on an upper shelf; pork can be thawed on a shelf above the poultry, but below the beef.
Properly thawing meat in the refrigerator requires space and time. If you’re short on both, you might consider the cold water sink method which requires the meat be placed in its original packaging in a bowl of cold water. The water must be changed at least every 30 minutes.
THE DANGER ZONE
It is well known that cold foods should be kept cold and hot foods kept hot. But, if you don’t know exactly what “cold” and “hot” mean, then you’ll need a thermometer. Cold foods can be safely stored in the refrigerator and/or freezer at less than 40ºF . Hot foods can safely be stored at 140ºF or above. Anything between 40ºF and 140ºF is in what is referred to The Danger Zone.
The Danger Zone is the temperature range where bacteria can multiply. This range would include room temperature, or a sink full of tepid tap water. If your refrigerator is overloaded and crowded, the temperature might need to be checked because a crowded refrigerator can lower the air flow, thus, lower the temperature.
Cold Water Sink Method
All proteins can be safely thawed in the sink in cold water provided the meat is wrapped securely and the water is changed within every 30 minutes. No protein should EVER be thawed in tepid or warm water, particularly poultry. Tap water is generally within The Danger Zone–it’s not cold to start with and when it sits out for awhile, it will gradually warm up.
Poultry is more often associated with salmonella bacteria, which is encouraged to grow in warmer environments. Ground beef is also suspect to bacterial growth in warm environments due to the nature of its processing. The best way to ensure safe thawing is to either place the meat in the refrigerator at 40ºF or place it in a bowl of cold water in the sink. Again, the sink water must be changed at least every 30 minutes.
Ground beef is put through a grinder, allowing air to permeate throughout the meat, resulting in a higher risk of bacterial growth. A steak, however, is different because it has been sliced from the animal, therefore, the incidence of bacteria permeating the interior of the steak is minimized. This is why you can have a medium rare steak, but should not have a medium rare burger.
Properly Thawing Ground Beef
Ground beef should be thawed either in the refrigerator, in its original wrapping and on the top shelf OR by the cold water sink method. To properly thaw ground beef via sink method, place the beef in a large bowl and cover it with cold tap water. After 30 minutes, pour off the water and add new, cold tap water. Repeat until ground beef has thawed.
Thawing Ground Beef On the Stove
Because ground beef has already been ground , it is safe to thaw ground beef on the stove top. For example, you have a frozen pound of ground beef and you want to make a meat sauce for pasta. It is perfectly safe to place the frozen beef in a hot skillet. It will need to be continually monitored. You’ll have to turn it, break it up with a spatula, whatever it takes to break it into smaller pieces. When there is NO pink, the ground beef is safe to eat.
Properly Thawing Poultry
First, poultry should never be rinsed. Doing so increases the risk of spreading any existing salmonella to your sink and surrounding areas.
Chicken breasts, thighs, wings, whatever…if it’s frozen and needs to be thawed properly, there are two choices. On the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, in the original wrapping OR the cold sink water method. Again, the water must be cold and changed at least every 30 minutes. Cooked poultry is only safe to eat once it has reached an internal temperature of 165ºF.
Never place thawed, uncooked meat or poultry back into the refrigerator.
Properly Thawing Seafood
Seafood can be properly thawed in the refrigerator, on the top shelf, or via the cold sink water method. When thawing un-packaged lobster, shrimp or scallops, the refrigerator method works best due to the texture of the crustacean. (Here, un-packaged refers to the crustacean being purchased from the meat department, free of packaging, and wrapped in paper.)
Lobster, shrimp and scallops tend to have a more fibrous, sinewy texture and when they are thawed directly via the cold water sink method (un-packaged), they tend to get water-logged and gooey. If you want to thaw un-packaged crustaceans via the cold water sink method, place the crustacean in a waterproof bag, then place the bag in a bowl and cover with cold water.
Properly Thawing Pork
Pork, like poultry, should never be rinsed; doing so could potentially distribute bacteria to other parts of your sink and kitchen. Prior to thawing pork, wipe it down with a paper towel. Place the pork in a water-proof bag and either place the bag in the refrigerator below beef and above poultry.
If using the cold sink water method, place the water proof bag in a big bowl and cover the pork with water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Once the pork has thawed, plan on preparing it immediately. Do not place any thawed meat back into the refrigerator. This increases the risk of bacterial growth.
Food safety is not to be taken lightly and it is our duty, as cooks, parents, friends and family, to do everything we can in the kitchen to ensure our friends and family enjoy a clean, healthy, safe meal–every meal.