Fresh meat is almost always better than frozen meat because when meat freezes the water crystals expand and puncture cell walls spilling out the juices that keep meat tender and juicy. Ever notice the pink liquid in the bottom of the bag when you defrost meat? No way to get it back. That said, meat frozen when fresh is usually better than meat that was frozen after sitting around for a week or so.
The idea is to warm the meat slightly but not raise the temp into the "danger zone" of 41°F to 135°F in which bacteria multiply rapidly.
You can do this slowly in the air in the fridge, but water is a better conductor of heat, so putting the meat in a water bath will defrost it faster, especially if it has been shrinkwrapped so the water has no air between it and the meat.
Never thaw meat at room temp. That is a recipe for fluid loss via all your apertures.
1) Refrigerator thawing. This is the easiest method. Leave the meat in the fridge its packaging in a pan deep enough to catch drips. Allow one day for every four pounds, so if you have a 20 pound turkey to cook on Thursday, you need to start thawing it on Sunday.
2) Cold water bath. Leave the meat in its sealed packaging. Put it in the sink or a large pot and cover it with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to make sure the meat is kept cold. If you stir it occasionally you will break up the envelope of cold water surrounding the meat. Allow 30 minutes per pound, so if you have a 20 pound turkey, you will need 10 hours, so make sure to set the alarm for early Thursday morning!
3) Cooler bath. Leave the meat in the sealed packaging. Place it in a plastic insulated cooler. Cover with cold water. After an hour add a quart of ice and add ice as needed, perhaps every hour, in order to keep the temp under 40°F. This method produces the least amount of "purge" or loss of fluid.
4) Hot water bath (for thin cuts only). A USDA sponsored research project published in mid 2011 showed that you can thaw a 1" thick steak in a 102°F water in 11 minutes and the meat never enters the "danger zone" within which microbes like to grow if you remove it promptly after it has thawed. Their tests also showed les liquid loss than the traditional thawing methods, above. If you want to try this at home, use water that is a bit warmer than body temp, lots of it to absorb the cold, stir it occasionally because the meat will create a cusion of cold water around itself, and set a timer so you don't leave it in hot water too long. Thawing times will vary depending on the thickness of the meat and the actual heat of the water. This technique will not work on thick cuts roasts because the exterior will stay in the danger zone too long.
This page was revised 6/11/2011
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