One of my favorite methods to preserve food and prevent waste is freezing. It is quick, requires minimal equipment, and most foods maintain their quality throughout the process. However, I often focus on the process of freezing food and not the steps to take when you are ready to cook with it. One of the most common questions I hear is “I had my dinner out thawing on my counter today for a couple of hours and was wondering if it is safe to eat?” Most of the time, the justification is that they forgot to take the item out of the freezer the night before and wanted to speed up the process.
The short answer to this question is that in most cases there is probably a higher risk of foodborne illness. Freezing does not kill pathogenic bacteria, so as food starts to become warm the bacteria become more active and begin to grow. For very short periods of time, this is not a concern. But when certain foods, like raw meat or fish, are kept between 40°F and 140°F for an extended period of time, it creates the perfect environment for harmful pathogens to grow. This range of temperatures is often referred to as the temperature danger zone. Therefore, meat thawing on the counter for a few hours is most likely still frozen in the middle, but the surface temperature on the outside has become warm enough to increase the risk of foodborne illness.
So, what are safe ways to thaw frozen foods like meat, fish, and poultry? One of the easiest ways is to remember to move it to the refrigerator the day before you plan to prepare it. This will keep the food out of the temperature danger zone. However, if you forget to plan ahead and need a quicker option, cold water can speed up the process. To prevent spreading bacteria around to other kitchen surfaces, the food you are thawing will need to be in a leakproof plastic package. Submerge the package in cold water and replace the water every 30 minutes. This method should not be used for longer than 2 hours. Another quick way to thaw is through the cooking process. If using the defrost setting on the microwave, the food should be cooked immediately after the thawing is complete. Another option for thin or ground meats is to start cooking the food while they are still frozen. This typically increases the needed cooking time by about 50 percent.
A variety of factors such as time, temperature, acidity, oxygen, and moisture influence the safety of foods. This makes a lot of food safety questions situational and dependent on many details. If you are ever unsure of the risk associated with eating certain foods, like ones that have been thawed on the counter, contact your local extension office.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center’s goal is to provide the residents of the community with research-based knowledge. For more information on food safety, wellness, and nutrition please contact the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Alyssa Anderson, MS, RDN, LDN at 919-775-5624.