Oh NO! You need to start cooking and realized you never took _______ out of the freezer! What is the quickest way to defrost meat? What is the best way? How long do I need to plan to defrost meat? This article will focus on raw food, not reheating.
Lets talk about freezing meat first with a little science too. If we can remember when we were in elementary school, we all learned that water expands when it is frozen. Meat, generally being 75%+ water, will also expand.
So why does water expand when it is frozen? When water changes state from a liquid to a solid, the molecules rearrange themselves into a six-sided crystal. Think of a snowflake. It’s a six sided crystal, literally. This arrangement puts more space in between the molecules, meaning the same number of molecules take up more space… expansion!
Okay, whoopie, right? Well I’d like to focus on those crystals, and how it impacts your meat. Ever thaw meat and end up with a puddle? What is that, and why wasn’t it there before? As your meat was freezing and expanding and subsequently thawing and shrinking, those crystals were actually cutting the proteins, releasing myoglobin, ie reddish water. (why do people still think it’s blood???)
In our perfect world, we want to minimize the amount of damage the crystals are doing to our lovely hunk of meat when we defrost. So what can we do?
Different ways of freezing
Believe it or not, there are different ways to freeze meat. Each way has pros and cons associated with it. Ultimately, one is better for us Q’ers than the others. You can freeze things slow or freeze things fast.
The SLOW freeze
The slow freeze is what you and I normally do. We vacuum seal something and then put it in our trusted freezer at home at around 0 degrees F. Why vacuum seal? Within 30 min to 2 hours depending on the size of meat it is frozen solid. It’s a marvel of technology really, and then the fact that it is in our homes? Pretty cool!
When things freeze slowly, they expand more because as the water makes the transition from liquid to solid, it does so from the outside in… With more time of transition, the frozen expansion has more time to push and pull the non-frozen. This means the outside could be frozen, and the inside not frozen.
With large crystals and lots of expansion, these ice crystals will cut and mar the protein structures of meat (or the cell walls of plants like beans and corn). During the thaw, when the meat shrinks, it is like squeezing a sponge. The meat is now literally leaking out the liquid caused by the damage of the ice crystals.
The puddle of liquid is the release of myoglobin through the tears in the protein. This also is why your at home frozen veggies come out mushy and weird and store bought comes out fresh and crisp… wait I’m jumping ahead!
The FAST freeze (aka flash freeze)
The fast freeze is not something you or I typically would have access to, but this is not your run of the mill freezer either. While a 2 lb Bottom Round would take about 1.5 hrs to freeze in our fridge at home, it could be frozen in mere minutes by flash freezing.
Flash freezing involves VERY LOW temperatures (-300 degrees F). Holy smokes that’s cold! It could also involve exposing food to liquid nitrogen or other super cooled material.
If slow freezing makes large ice crystals, you’d be right in thinking that fast freezing makes small ice crystals. Smaller ice crystals obviously limit the amount of expansion and subsequent tearing the meat (or veggies) would experience. In an ideal world, we would want everything flash frozen.
Cool story bro, now what?
At this point, regardless of how your meat was frozen, we are going to try and minimize the amount of damage we do during the defrost. We want to maximize and preserve the characteristics of the meat before it was frozen as much as we can.
Life is nothing but a series of trade offs, and this is no different.
– Which way is the best? The refrigerator.
– Which way is the fastest? The ice bath.
– Which way is really bad? The microwave
– Which way is even worse than the microwave? Cooking it.
The best way to defrost meat with the least damage to your food is by placing your frozen food in the refrigerator. The slow way is easier on your food, minimizing the violence that is occurring on the microscopic level. Think Antman… great movie.
Defrosting your meat in the refrigerator does require a few considerations:
Space requirements: If we are talking about defrosting those couple burgers you made, then I’m sure we could switch it from the freezer to the fridge the night before… but that brisket? Whoa, that’s 12 lbs! Make sure you have the space.
If you are going to be serious about getting into smoking, you’ll likely find that your kitchen fridge/freezer combo isn’t going to cut it anymore. I have a fridge/freezer combo in my garage. The extra space is handy! At least for the beer…
Time requirements: Again, a smaller item like burgers you might remember to move them to the fridge the night before. By the time you go to cook them the next night, it’s like when you first put them in the fridge. But the brisket… you are looking forward to days in the fridge. Can you lose that much space for this much time?
If you have the space and the time (and don’t forget!), the fridge method is the way to go to defrost meat.
The Ice Bath
The ice bath is also an excellent way to quickly defrost your meat without cooking it. This works on a very simple thermodynamics principle that most people would think is bonkers. But try it, you’ll see that I’m right!
The thermodynamics principle I’m talking about is radiation vs conduction. You are familiar with these concepts, but maybe not in practice… Here we go: Stick your hand in a 350 degree oven. You could probably hold it there for a little bit. That is radiation, heat transfer WITHOUT contact. Now what would happen if you stuck your hand in a 350 degree oil fryer… That’s conduction, heat transfer WITH contact.
Conduction will transfer SIGNIFICANTLY more heat than radiation. That is the principle behind the ice bath. A glass of ice water is exactly 32 degrees F at sea level. Your refrigerator is also likely set at a similar temperature.
By fully submerging your meat in a 32 degree bath vs a 32 degree refrigerator, you will transfer significantly more heat INTO the meat through conduction. Believe it or not the ice water is warming your meat, gently.
Defrosting your meat in an ice bath requires the following considerations:
Container Size: Like fridge size, you will need to fully submerge the items you are trying to defrost. For large cuts of meat, a cooler works best. For smaller items, you could use a stock pot or similar.
Ice quantities: You need enough ice to keep the water cool. This sounds counter intuitive, since the giant piece of meat is a giant ice cube. However, you do not want the water temperature to rise higher than ~37 degrees. As the meat defrosts, you will need to add more ice. For large cuts of meat, this might mean having to go get a 5 lb bag of ice from the local mart. For smaller meats you could probably get away with a glass or two of ice from your ice maker.
Sealing: If we want to put our meat in a bath, it would be ideal if it were in a sealed bag of some kind. While it is perfectly safe to drop some steaks into water, it is more of a pain to cleanup. I highly recommend getting a vacuum sealer. Vacuum sealers eliminate freezer burn and keep food longer.
The only thing the microwave is good for is getting things from cold to hot. There is a small group of folks out there that are experts with the microwave… and by expert I mean the folks that go beyond 1-0-0-start, or hitting the Quick 30 button a few times. These people start messing with power levels, times, wrapping… oye.
Can you use the microwave to defrost meat? Absolutely. But it is by far the most damaging to your beautiful meat… the edges come out partially cooked, there is a large puddle that has now started to steam inside the microwave, it likely still has a partially frozen center yet the surface is hot to the touch (Hot Pockets, gross).
If you are in such urgent need to use the microwave, and I’ve been there, here are my recommendations:
– Use the automatic defrost setting. This setting alternates power levels over alternating times. It does a decent job of defrosting without “cooking”, but by no means is it a replacement for the fridge or ice bath.
– Place the meat on top of a paper towel. If not in a sealed bag this can help with the braising that might happen.
– Set a reminder on your phone. This reminder should go off per the refrigerator method time in the below table so you don’t have to microwave.
Yes, you can skip the defrost and cook frozen meat. You don’t want to and I’m not going to spend much time on this. Sometimes, it actually will take longer than ice bath plus cook.
The USDA says it will take 1.5-2 times the amount of the normal time to cook frozen meat than not frozen. On Thanksgiving, a 6 hour bird cook is going to be a super dry hunk o’ char by the time the center is not frozen and at temperature.
The only time I think this is acceptable is under very strict circumstances… like when I forget to take a pound o’ chuck out of the freezer for my crock pot chili. Yeah, I’ll throw it in the crock pot frozen where it is surrounded by liquid (conduction) and it’s cooking for 8 hrs. It’d be defrosted in less than an hour.
Ahh, the stuff you’ve been waiting for; How long it will take when I take my stuff out of the freezer. The following table is approximate.
|Ice Bath |
|1 pound||12 hours||1.5 hours||couple of burgers|
|3 pounds||20 hours||1.5 hours||roast or whole chicken|
|5 pounds||26 hours||3.5 hours||pork shoulder|
|10 pounds||60 hours (2.5 days)||5 hours||ribeye roast|
|12 pounds||72 hours (3 days)||6 hours||trimmed brisket|
|15 pounds||90 hours (~4 days)||7.5 hours||turkey|
|20 pounds||120 hours (5 days)||10 hours||something seriously awesome|
That’s a pretty long article to arrive at the table you wanted to begin with. But hopefully you increased your iQ’ in the process.
How can we do it better?
I always like to ask this question. It means we are always trying to improve. Prior to storing frozen food:
Maximize food surface area: smaller cross sections, maximum exposure to cold freezes faster. When freezing ground meats, spread it out as much as possible in the bag (this also makes it easier to stack). When freezing chicken breasts or multiple cuts, put some space in between them in the bag.
Pre-freeze: You can spead out veggies or cuts of meat on a baking sheet (Aluminum is the best). Freeze them, and then vacuum seal or bag as required.
Cut into smaller sections: If you have meat you plan to stew or chunk up… do it before you put it in the bag and spread it out. Huge moisture loss savings for the lean cuts!
Ask the store for frozen: This seems weird, but sometimes when I want to stock up on some ribs or large cuts I’ll ask for what’s frozen already instead of the displayed meat. The display has already started to thaw or has completely thawed. Taking it home to freeze it again is counter productive to this whole article! Ask for the already frozen, it was most likely flash frozen.
Disclaimer: All recently defrosted meat should be cooked as soon as possible to reduce the risk of bacterial growth.
In summary, be strategic about packaging, quickly freeze our meat, and slowly thaw. You’ll have a much better frozen meat experience!
Let me know if you have any other suggestions in the comments!