Food Republic’s new column, Ask Your Butcher, seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer — co-owner of Philadelphia’s Kensington Quarters, a full-service restaurant, bar, butcher shop and classroom — will tackle a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks in each column. Next up, Mayer explores the best ways to thaw frozen meat.
Time was, you had to be careful when purchasing frozen meat, lest you find yourself with a defrosted hunk of something a bit past its prime. Fear not, meat buyers: There are a host of CSAs, farmers’ markets and butcher shops that carry a bit of frozen inventory so you can stock up for the week and beyond. And in most cases, you’re still getting a high-quality product with uncompromised taste. Frozen meat is more prevalent than ever today: It allows farmers to do what they do best (farm) and for slaughterhouses to have another revenue stream — processing. There are a few exceptions, but most meat for sale has to be slaughtered under USDA inspection. Freezing is a way to preserve perishable items so they can be sold at farmers’ markets at a later date, preventing loss to the farmer. Below are three methods that I recommend for defrosting to best preserve quality and taste.
The Traditional Way
A good old-fashioned thaw overnight in your fridge is, in my opinion, the best method — and in some instances, the only method (more on that below). This takes a bit of planning, though; sometimes more than 24 hours, depending on the size of what you’re trying to defrost. No way is a 20-pound turkey defrosting overnight. Stick to things like smaller roasts (three to four pounds), a chicken, a steak or ground beef. A plus side to taking a bit more time is that if those dinner plans are canceled, you’ve got some time before you need to cook it: about a day or two for chicken or ground meat, three to five days for red meat. You can refreeze, but there will be some loss in quality.
The Hasty Way
For something a little less time-consuming, I recommend a cold-water bath. I don’t remember much from physics, but I do recall a thing or two about thermodynamics. Number one is that water is a much better conductor than air. So if you want to speed that defrost time up a bit, get yourself a bowl of cold tap water. Tap water temps can vary, so add some ice to keep things on the safe side: 40°F or below. Small packages of about a pound or less can take up to an hour. Something on the three- to four-pound side may take up to three hours. For jumbo items like a turkey, the USDA recommends a general rule of 30 minutes per pound.
Some things to keep in mind: Make sure the packaging is sealed. You don’t want to introduce bacteria into the food, nor do you want it to absorb water like a sponge. If you haven’t purchased something vacuum-sealed, you’re going to need a leakproof bag of your own, or make sure you zip those ziplocks real tight. Also, make sure to change the water every 30 minutes. Some local health departments require cold running water to thaw, but you’re not a restaurant, and the FSIS (the public health agency of the USDA) says to change it every 30 minutes, so that’s good enough for me. Plus, it’s a terrible waste of water.
Finally, unlike defrosting in the fridge — where you can refreeze the meat — you’ll need to cook meat thawed in water right away, just in case it was held at a temperature above 40°F.
The Out-of-the-Box Way
The third way might come as a bit of a shock to you, but fear not: The Journal of Food Science, Harold McGee and The New York Times all say it’s okay. Here goes: You can use hot water to defrost meat. Now, there are some pretty important caveats here: Mainly, this is only to be done on cuts of meat one inch thick or less and within a certain temperature range. The USDA says around 102°F. Harold McGee says 125°F. I’m good with what Mr. McGee says. Results vary, but plan on anywhere from as little as just over three minutes to around nine minutes. Feel comfortable knowing that the USDA is fully on board: “These water-bath times are so short that any bacterial growth would remain within safe limits,” say the guidelines. Common sense applies here, so please don’t thaw large roasts or turkeys this way. For those, stick to the fridge or cold water.
A couple of general final thoughts: You can always cook frozen meat — just be prepared to add about 50 percent more cooking time to what is recommended. And once again, per the USDA, “never thaw foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag or on your porch.” Wise advice. I’m just curious as to what got left off that list.
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