We Tested 5 Ways to Defrost Ground Beef and the Winner Is the Easiest Method

published Dec 29, 2022
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five different methods for defrosting ground beef
Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

There are a few good reasons for keeping a package or two of ground beef in your freezer at any given time. Ground beef is a great option for making filling stews and chilis for a family, it’s a good source of protein, and it can be turned into just about anything (think: homemade smash burgers, tangy meatballs, or beef kofta). 

One thing that could hold up any of these delicious possibilities is a large block of frozen ground beef that you forgot to take out of the freezer in the morning. This situation is all too familiar to many of us home cooks. It may be tempting to either rush to defrost the rock-solid ground beef or to simply opt for something easier, like ordering takeout.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

So, What Is the Best Way to Defrost Ground Beef?

If you happen to find yourself in this situation, no need to fret. There are indeed a few ways to defrost frozen ground beef at the last minute. But before we address those methods, we should point out that the best way to defrost ground beef is to place it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. A very close second method is to place the beef in a bath of very cold water, changing the water after 30 minutes. These are both the safest methods and they deliver the best results.

Warning: Under no circumstances should you leave frozen beef out on the counter to defrost. This will put you at risk for contamination because bacteria multiplies rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tried out five different methods for defrosting ground beef, and here’s what we learned.

A Few Notes on Methodology

The beef: For this showdown, I decided to stick to ground beef that was 80% lean and 20% fat, which seems to be the most popular variety of ground beef in a lot of people’s kitchens. I also used one-pound packages of conventionally raised ground beef rather than more pricey “100% grass-fed” options that are available at a lot of stores. 

The tests: To test these different methods for defrosting ground beef, I kept all of the other factors as constant as possible. In other words, in addition to weight and variety, I transferred each package of ground beef to the same type of gallon-sized, freezer-safe, zip-top bag without manipulating the meat or changing its shape. 

To do this, I removed the plastic on the top, slid the package of meat in the bag on the counter, and used two hands to quickly flip the package over so that the beef would fall into the bag. I then removed the packaging, including the pad that is usually at the bottom of the package to absorb excess liquid from the meat. 

I used this process for each of the methods. I then placed each bag of meat in the freezer, one stacked on top of the other, and allowed them to fully freeze overnight. For tests that involved using a bowl of cold water, I filled a large glass bowl with cold water, using the coldest setting on my sink. I also used the same kind of 19-ounce soup can to weigh each bag of meat down in the water. 

Ratings: The following are the criteria I used to rate each of these methods. First, I noted whether or not the method resulted in unevenly thawed or even partially cooked meat (more on that later!). Was the texture of the beef the same as fresh, or did the method render it mushy? Efficiency was another important factor. I noted whether or not a method required me to repeatedly touch or maneuver the package of raw meat, which meant washing my hands constantly. 

And a final factor that influenced my ratings was whether or not a thawing method required me (for safety reasons) to use the beef immediately after it thawed. I appreciate having up to a day to use ground beef once it’s defrosted; it gives me time to actually think about what I want to cook with it.

Note that all of the methods tested are considered food-safe.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Ground Beef Defrosting Method: Microwave on Defrost Setting

  • Defrosting time: 6 to 7 minutes
  • Rating: 4/10

About this method: This is one of the three main methods that is recommended by most resources online, including the USDA. Most sites, such as All Recipes and Martha Stewart Living, recommend defrosting the beef by using the microwave’s defrost setting (which most microwaves have). If yours does not have a defrost setting, you can approximate one by setting your microwave on 30% power and cooking for at least 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the weight of ground beef. 

For my test, I placed my beef on a plate. Then I used the defrost setting on my microwave and entered “1 pound” for the quantity/size. My microwave automatically started a 5-minute cook time, with instructions to flip the meat halfway through.

Results: Microwaving proved to be the least satisfying method because the beef defrosted so unevenly. After heating for 5 minutes, I checked the meat and discovered that some parts were still a bit frozen while other parts were completely defrosted and had started to cook.

I decided to continue heating, on the defrost setting, in 30-second increments — it took between 30 seconds and one minute for the meat to finally defrost completely. With that said, some parts of the ground beef began to cook and brown, which I didn’t love because I only wanted to defrost the meat and not cook it yet. Plus, a lot of fluids from the meat spilled out all over the plate. All in all, the microwave gives you the least amount of control when it comes to defrosting ground beef. 

Additionally, you must use the beef immediately after it’s thawed because, per the USDA, parts of it have already started cooking.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Ground Beef Defrosting Method: Place in Cold Water Bath, Replacing Water Every 15 Minutes

  • Defrosting time: About 1 hour to 1 hour and 5 minutes
  • Rating: 7.5/10

About this method: One of the most common thawing methods recommended by the USDA is to sink the ground beef in a bowl of very cold water, weighted down, and to replace with more very cold water every 30 minutes. Why replace the water? While the frozen beef will keep the water chilled at first, over time, the water will gradually warm. Bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the USDA. It can double in as little as 20 minutes. This is a clear hazard. That’s why you need to replace the bath with more cold water. (If your tap water does not get very cold, you may want to add a few ice cubes when you replace the water.)

I wondered if replacing the water more frequently, every 15 minutes, would make a difference compared to the more common method. Would the meat defrost more quickly? 

Results: Using this method, the beef took just over an hour to fully defrost. It defrosted evenly, without leaving any frozen sections or ice crystals on the surface. With that said, the main reason I gave this a score of 7.5 out of 10 is because subsequent testing proved that it was not necessary to change the water this frequently. I washed my hands after handling the beef (even though it was sealed in a bag), which was inconvenient and drying for my skin. This method worked fine, but it was more involved.

Also, this method requires you to use the beef immediately after it thaws completely. For safety reasons, you don’t have the option of keeping it in the refrigerator for a few hours while you decide what to cook with it.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Ground Beef Defrosting Method: Place Under Cold Running Water

  • Defrosting time: 1 hour
  • Rating: 8/10

About this method: This is another method commonly recommended for defrosting ground beef safely and efficiently. It involves placing the package of frozen ground beef in the plastic bag either in the sink itself or in a bowl set inside the sink and then running cold water over it continuously until the beef thaws. To monitor the progress, I checked the meat at 30-minute intervals, similar to some of the other methods

Results: This method worked pretty well. After an hour and 3 minutes the ground beef was completely defrosted. Aside from checking the beef after the first 30 minutes, I didn’t have to handle the meat or bowl too much, which was a plus. The biggest downside to this method, as you can probably guess, is having to let your sink run for an hour. Not only does this prevent you from doing anything else in the sink, but it also uses a lot of water and will raise your utility bills. 

Additionally, for food safety reasons, you must cook the beef immediately after it thaws completely. You do not have the option of keeping it in the refrigerator for a few more hours.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Ground Beef Defrosting Method: Place in Cold Water Bath, Replacing Water Every 30 Minutes

  • Defrosting time: 1 hour exactly
  • Rating: 9.5/10

About this method: This is probably the most recommended one for defrosting ground beef safely but very quickly. You can find this technique on most food sites as well as on the USDA’s site. This method involves removing the ground beef from the freezer, placing it (still in the plastic zip-top bag) in a large mixing bowl, filling the bowl with very cold water, and weighing the beef down with a 15- to 20-ounce can. Replace the water after exactly 30 minutes with very cold water.

Results: This method worked great! There’s a reason this is one of the top ways of getting the job done. There’s minimal handling of the meat and water, the meat defrosted in exactly 1 hour, and it was evenly defrosted, without any remaining ice crystals or “weird,” mushy texture. All in all, this is hands-down the method for defrosting ground beef that strikes the best balance between speed, safety, and an even defrost.

The only reason that this didn’t get a perfect score is that, for safety reasons, you have to use the beef immediately once it’s fully thawed. This doesn’t allow much flexibility in choosing when to cook the beef.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Ground Beef Defrosting Method: Refrigerate in a Plastic Bag Overnight

  • Defrosting: 24 hours exactly
  • Rating: 10/10

About this method: This method is arguably the most intuitive one of the bunch, not to mention the easiest, as your fridge does the large majority of the work. This technique simply involves transferring the frozen ground beef in the plastic bag from the freezer to the fridge. When I tested this method, all I did was place the beef in the bottom shelf of the fridge, making sure not to place anything on top of or below it. 

Results: This method worked amazingly well. The beef was fully defrosted after a full 24 hours. I placed the package of ground beef in the fridge in the afternoon and then checked on it at the same time the following day. The ground beef was soft, evenly defrosted, and ready to be used, which are all pluses. 

The best part, though, and the reason this method is at the top of the list, is because I still had plenty of time to actually think about what I wanted to do with the beef. Unlike with the other methods, I did not have to use it immediately after it had thawed. (According to the USDA, fridge-thawed beef is good for a day or two.) I had time to brainstorm recipe ideas before actually placing the meat in a pan. While this method takes significantly longer than the methods using a cold water bath, flexibility in use landed this method in the top spot.