There are a few methods, and the one you choose will probably come down to how much time you have.
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It has happened to all of us: It's 5 p.m. and you just realized you forgot to defrost the ground beef you need for tonight's dinner. This doesn't mean you need to keep it in the freezer and save it for a different day—you can still get the meal you planned on the table without waiting hours for the meat to defrost. There are a few different thawing methods you can choose from based on how much time you have before you need to start cooking: Ground beef can be thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water, and even in the microwave. 

frozen ground beef
Credit: Vaidas Bucys / Getty Images

Thawing Ground Beef in the Refrigerator

While it might not be the way to go if you need the meat for tonight's dinner, if you have enough time for this method, defrosting ground beef in the refrigerator is the way to go. "Thawing ground beef in the refrigerator is our preferred method for safe thawing," says Britanny Saunier, executive director of Partnership for Food Safety Education. According to Saunier, this method gives you better control of the temperature and avoids the danger zone—the temperature at which bacteria multiply rapidly, which is between 40 and 140 degrees. 

The first step is to set your refrigerator to 40 degrees or below as measured by an appliance thermometer. Place the ground beef, still in its packaging, on a tray with a lip or in a container that can capture any juices as it thaws. Next, Saunier says to put the ground beef on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator to prevent any runaway juices from dripping on other raw products, which can cross-contaminate your food. 

How Long It Takes to Thaw Ground Beef in the Refrigerator

Although defrosting ground beef in the refrigerator is the safest method, it also takes the longest time. "Thawing time in a refrigerator may vary depending on the temperature of your refrigerator," Saunier says. "For example, a refrigerator set at 35 degrees might lengthen the thawing time compared to a refrigerator set at 40 degrees." Additionally the size or weight of the beef will also impact the thawing time. Generally, thawing in the refrigerator usually takes one to two days. 

Thawing Ground Beef in Cold Water

While it's a great way to thaw the protein quickly, defrosting ground beef in cold water requires more attention than using the refrigerator. This method should only be used if the water is kept cold—less than 70 degrees, says Tracey Brigman, EdD, MS, RDN, LD, clinical associate professor and associate director for National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia

"For safe thawing, the food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag," Brigman says. You can defrost ground beef in cold water two ways: Run water constantly over the bag of protein until thawed or place the bag of ground beef in a bowl full of cold tap water and ensure it is completely submerged. "The water must be changed every 30 minutes as the food continues to thaw," Brigman says.

How Long It Takes to Thaw Ground Beef in Cold Water

Thawing times vary by weight when using the cold water method. According to Saunier, small packages may take about an hour to defrost, while larger packages (about 3 to 4 pounds) could take anywhere from two to three hours.

Thawing Ground Beef in the Microwave

"Thawing in the microwave is best if you need a fast thaw time," Saunier says. First, remove all store packaging, because it's typically not heat resistant, says Brigman. Then place the beef in a microwave-safe container and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Next, select the defrost feature on the microwave or manually set it to 30 percent power. "If your microwave does not rotate automatically, rotate the container halfway through the defrosting process," she says. You should also check the instruction manual for your microwave, which provides information on the proper settings for thawing.

When thawing ground beef in the microwave, Saunier stresses that the ground beef should be cooked immediately because some areas may start the cooking process during the thawing. "This brings parts of the food closer to temperatures at which bacteria multiply rapidly," she says. Additionally, she notes that you should wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling raw ground beef to reduce the risk of food poisoning. 

How Long It Takes to Thaw Ground Beef in the Microwave

"You can take ground beef out of the freezer and put it right into your microwave," says Saunier. Generally, it it should take about seven to eight minutes per pound to defrost ground beef in the microwave, Brigman says, but this depends on the wattage of the microwave and the size and thickness of the meat.

Never Thaw Ground Beef on the Counter

While it may seem efficient, thawing meat on the counter is highly dangerous. "Ground beef should never be defrosted on the counter or in warm water," Brigman says. The outer layer of the food will enter the danger zone and begin producing bacteria rapidly while the inner layer is still thawing. When food enters the danger zone it makes you more susceptible to food poisoning, which Saunier says can have long-lasting effects on your health.

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