How to Safely Thaw Frozen Meat

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Standing Rib Roast

Thawing frozen meat can make people nervous — no one wants to create any risk of foodborne illness. But keeping meat in the freezer is a smart way to cut down on trips to the market and take advantage of great sales on your favorite cuts of meat. Here is how to defrost all kinds of meat, all kinds of cuts, in the quickest and safest ways possible.

Take the timing of the size and cut of meat you want to thaw and the defrosting method you plan to use. You’ll want to allow for much more time to defrost a pork shoulder in the fridge for making Oven Pulled Pork than you would want to allow for a top sirloin steak that you plan to grill. Ground beef for One Skillet Cheesy Beef and Macaroni will take even less time. Plan ahead!

Frozen ground meat in a package.

The Best Ways to Defrost Meat

In general, larger cuts of meat should be defrosted in the refrigerator. For these big cuts, the meat will start to cook on the outside if it is thawed in a microwave, and it will take a very long time in a bowl of water. Smaller or thinner cuts, like flank steak or pork chops, do well with the water thawing or microwave method.

Uncooked standing rib roast with vegetables.
Standing Rib Roast, about to go into the oven

All the methods you need to know for defrosting frozen meat safely, from chops to ground beef to roasts.

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Thawing Frozen Meat in the Refrigerator

This method is the most trustworthy and dependable method, and also the one that you don’t have to monitor while it’s happening. The only downside is that it takes time, so you need to plan ahead, especially if you are thawing a big roast or if you’ve frozen multiple steaks in a single package.

A single-layer package of lamb chops or a package of ground beef, for example, might take up to a day to fully thaw in the fridge. A 4-pound roast or a large package of steaks could require 2 days. A very large piece of meat, like a big pork shoulder, could take 3 days. Once defrosted, the meat can stay in the fridge for another day or two, provided it was frozen while quite fresh. Ground meat should be used within a day.

Herbed Boneless Leg of Lamb with Mustard Crust on a wooden platter.
Herbed Boneless Leg of Lamb with Mustard Crust

Quickly Thawing Meat in Cold Water

If you need to defrost meat fast, this is the quickest way to do that safely. Frozen meat can be placed tightly sealed (either in vacuum-sealed bags or sturdy, freezer-proof, zipper-top storage bags) in a bowl of cold water.

Thawing meat in cold water is faster than thawing it in the fridge and still allows the meat to thaw evenly. Keep checking and changing the water to keep it cold. Once the meat is thawed, using the quick-thaw in water method, it should be cooked within a day. Do not refreeze the meat.

Do NOT use hot water! Besides possibly causing bacteria to form, hot or warm water will also start to “cook” the outside of the meat before the middle is thawed. Change the water every 30 to 45 minutes to make sure the water stays cold.

How Long Does Thawing Meat in Water Take?

Remember to use cold water and change it frequently if it starts to become lukewarm.

  • A pound of ground meat will take between 1 and 2 hours.
  • A 1-inch thick or so steak will thaw in 1 to 2 hours; larger amounts and bigger cuts may take a few hours.
  • Small roasts will take about 3 hours.
  • Larger pieces of meat are best thawed in the fridge.
  • If you are thawing multiple pieces of meat in a bag, once the individual pieces have thawed enough to be separated, open the bag, pull the pieces apart, then reseal the bag (make sure it’s sealed tightly!) and return it to the water.
Frozen sirloin steak in a package.

How to Defrost Meat in a Microwave

These days, many microwaves have special settings for thawing meat (and lots of other items). Your instruction manual will help you figure out the best way to do that in your particular microwave. The manual may even have specific directions for specific cuts of meat. This is very helpful in preventing the meat from starting to cook in the microwave.

If not, here’s how to safely thaw meat in the microwave.

  1. Place the meat in a microwave-proof bag or place it on a plate. Set the microwave to defrost, and then check every few minutes to see when it is thawed properly.
  2. If you don’t have a rotating tray, you will want to keep turning the plate every minute or so. Even if you do have a rotating tray, you may need to rearrange the meat if you are defrosting multiple pieces, as the ones on the outside will heat faster than the ones in the middle. Switch them partway through the thawing process. Remove individual pieces of meat as they are thawed.
  3. Even if you are watching carefully, the thinner parts of the meat will probably start to cook a bit while the thicker parts are still thawing. Meat thawed in the microwave should not be put back in the fridge and needs to be cooked right away.
Mediterranean Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Vegetables on a platter.
Mediterranean Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Vegetables

How to Cook Frozen Meat

You can cook some meat from its frozen state. How to do this depends on the type of meat and the cooking method. The general rule of thumb is to add another 50% of cooking time from the time suggested in the recipe.

Smaller cuts of meat work best, such as cubed stew meat or thinly sliced meat, like cutlets. Slower cooking methods are best when you are cooking frozen meat. The meat does better texture-wise in the slow cooker, in a braised recipe, or when cooked in soups and stews. Using frozen meat with other cooking methods (like sautéing, roasting, or microwaving) may yield slightly uneven results. You might find the outside of the chicken cooked more than the inside or get a less-than-ideal texture.

As the meat thaws, it releases moisture. This is ok in the slower cooking methods that involve liquid but not great for things like searing or sautéing. If you are cooking the meat in a pan, you will not be able to get a nice browned exterior because the meat will be kind of steaming in its released water.

Moroccan Lamb and Butternut Squash Stew  in a blue pot.
Moroccan Lamb and Butternut Squash Stew


How long does meat take to defrost at room temperature?

For safety reasons, meat should NEVER be thawed on the counter at room temperature or in a bowl of warm or hot water. You need to thaw meat in the refrigerator or in cold water to keep it out of the temperature range that allows bacteria to grow, 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the “danger zone” for the growth of microorganisms, according to the USDA.

Can you defrost meat in hot water?

No, never! Again, you have to keep the temperature of meat outside of the danger zone for microorganisms to grow, which is 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, bacteria can grow and spread. Higher temperatures are ok for cooking, but defrosting meat must take place below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

How long does it take to defrost steak?

It depends on the size of the steak and the thickness. A 1-inch steak will take about 1 day to defrost in the fridge. The steak will take about 2 hours to defrost in a bowl of cold water. And it will take about 10 minutes to defrost in a microwave.

How long does frozen meat take to defrost in the fridge?

A single-layer package of lamb chops or a package of ground beef, for example, might take up to a day to fully thaw in the fridge, and a 4-pound roast or a large package of steaks could require 2 days, or even more if it’s a very large piece of meat, like a big pork shoulder. Once defrosted, the meat can stay in the fridge for another day or two, provided it was frozen while quite fresh. Ground meat should be used within a day.

Roast Beef with Thyme and Rosemary in an oval white baking dish.
Roast Eye of Round Beef with Thyme and Rosemary

More Safe Defrosting Advice!

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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  1. Hannah J Parrish says:

    Whenever I want to thaw meat, I always use cold tap water. Cover it, change the water every 30 minutes until thawed. I thawed some bacon yesterday, and it only took about 20 minutes in the water. I would imagine that ribs would only be 30-45 minutes… if they’re not completely thawed by then, they’d be pretty darn close and you could toss them on the egg.
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    1. Aileen F says:

      Bacon doesn’t really need to be thawed. In fact, it’s easier to work with while mostly frozen, and will take the same amount of time to cook.

  2. Captain Meat says:

    So this is what happens when a writer does the homework needed to write quality material. Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful content.