What Are the Best Ways to Thaw Meat, Chicken, and Fish?

Here are the safest methods to employ when you need to get dinner from the freezer to the table fast.

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You know the scenario: It's 6 p.m., and the salmon you wanted to cook for dinner is still in the freezer. Maybe you wanted to cook your family's new favorite chicken cutlet recipe, Creamy Lemon Chicken with Spinach and Artichokes, but the cutlets you bought are frozen. How can you quickly defrost them? We asked Harold McGee, expert on the science of food and cooking and author of the seminal book, On Food and Cooking ($22.99, amazon.com), for her insights.

frozen Alaskan sockeye salmon
Camrin Dengal

First, know that while it seems like the easiest choice, it is not safe to let proteins thaw on the kitchen counter for a few hours. McGee says, "The surface can rise to microbe-friendly temperatures long before the interior thaws." So, as you wait for the center to thaw, the outside of the meat will get too warm, inviting bacteria to grow.

Thaw it in the fridge.

Though it may not be the fastest way, this an easy, safe way to thaw your frozen foods. Keep the protein in its packaging and place in a bowl or on a plate or baking sheet with a rim, and pop it in the fridge. If it's a few fish fillets or some boneless chicken breasts, you can put it in the fridge in the morning and it should be ready in time for you to make dinner. For larger pieces, like thick steaks, you will probably need a day; very large items (like that 15-pound Thanksgiving turkey) can take three or four days to completely thaw.

Thaw it in ice water.

This is the fastest and most efficient way to thaw. McGee explains that "air transfers heat to the meat very slowly, about one-twentieth the rate that water does." So, while thawing in the fridge surrounded by cold air is safe and effective, it takes far longer than thawing in water does. Place the protein in a resealable plastic bag, squeeze out as much air as you can, and seal. Put it in a large bowl and cover it with very cold water. Add a large handful of ice. Place a plate on top to keep submerged under the water. Change the water every 30 minutes, adding more ice if it melts. This is best for smaller pieces of meat, fish, or poultry. It won't work for large roasts unless you bring out your cooler!

Don't thaw it at all.

Yes, you can cook proteins from frozen. Be sure to add extra time to be sure the food is cooked to the desired temperature. Cooking from frozen works best with smaller cuts that do not contain any large bones. Alaska Seafood approves of cooking fish from frozen, so give it a try next time you're faced with that frozen salmon dinner dilemma.

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