7 Mistakes to Avoid When Thawing Frozen Foods

updated May 18, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Congrats, you’ve frozen your latest grocery haul like a real pro! Now comes the true test — actually using that freezer full of food. Whether you consider yourself captain of the food safety patrol or not, nobody wants to risk food waste or other ill-intended consequences. Thawing food isn’t complicated, but there are a few strategies that can help you maximize your culinary resources. Before you reach into the freezer for dinner, make sure you aren’t inadvertently falling victim to these common thawing trouble spots. These are the most common pitfalls to avoid and tips for what you should do instead.

1. You fail to FIFO.

FIFO means first in, first out. It’s an acronym that food professionals from grocery store stockers to restaurant chefs live by, and you should too.

Follow this tip: Rather than toss foods front and center of the freezer, stack new groceries behind or under older items. When organized this way, older frozen foods are easier to access, and you’ll maintain a constant rotation of newer inventory.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

2. You thaw frozen food on the counter at room temperature.

If you forgot to take the frozen chicken breasts out of the freezer early, don’t just toss them on the counter to thaw. Perishable foods (including frozen raw or cooked meat, seafood, or prepared foods) should not be left at room temperature for longer than two hours. There are faster and safer ways to thaw food quickly and without risk of microbial multiplication.

Follow this tip: In culinary circles the temperature range 40°F to 140°F is called the “Danger Zone.” Frozen foods left on the counter to thaw quickly enter that Danger Zone (your home’s ambient air temperature falls smack dab in the middle of that zone), creating a hospitable environment for belly-busting microbes. Choose a safer thawing method like placing the food under cool, running water, or thawing in the microwave quickly or the refrigerator overnight instead.

Read more: 5 Ways to Safely Thaw Frozen Foods

3. Thawing food with warm water.

If thawing under cool water is good, warm water must be better, right? Wrong. When you’re in a rush to thaw frozen food, it’s easy to understand why submerging food under warm water seems like a good idea. Food safety experts advise against this because while the center of the food is still frozen, the warm water places the outer layers of the food into the Danger Zone of 40°F to 140°F.

Follow this tip: Fill a large bowl with cool water and submerge your supper (in a sealed zip-top bag). Check the water temperature every 30 minutes or so, adding more cool water if the temperature rises too high.

Credit: Lauren Volo

4. Thawing raw meat directly on the refrigerator shelf.

Freezer foods are already wrapped — often in more than one layer — so there should be no trouble with thawing directly on the refrigerator shelf. Wrong. Even thick freezer bags can tear and ice crystals can puncture holes in the constant reshuffling of the freezer. Trouble is, you often don’t know that a bag has been compromised until it is too late.

Follow this tip: Place any frozen food — even if it is packaged in a bag — onto a rimmed baking sheet or large plate before thawing in the refrigerator. The baking sheet will catch condensation and raw juices before they contaminate the chill chest.

Credit: Kitchn Video

5. You thaw everything in the microwave.

The microwave has a defrost button, so why not use it? Unfortunately, the uneven heating of a microwave results in some parts of the food becoming quite warm and entering the temperature danger zone.

Follow this tip: Microwave thawing is best reserved for foods you will prepare immediately, like softening a block of frozen fruit for smoothies. The better option is to thaw in a bowl of cool water. If you do choose to thaw with your microwave, make sure to cook food to a safe temperature immediately after microwave thawing.

Read more: Stop Defrosting Frozen Meat in the Microwave

Credit: Joe Lingeman

6. You refreeze thawed food.

Have you ever started to quickly thaw a chicken breast under cool water or popped it in the microwave to melt the ice, only to have dinner plans suddenly change? Even if the center of the food is still ice cold, it is unsafe to refreeze food that has been outside of refrigerator temperatures for over an hour (or otherwise entered that range of 40°F to 140°F).

Follow this tip: Continue thawing the food and cook it to a safe temperature right away. At this point the food can be refrozen, although the texture and flavor may be compromised with the repeated freezing and thawing.

Learn more: The Big Thaw from USDA

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Forgetting you can cook food straight from the freezer _ no thawing necessary.

It is almost dinnertime, but the main dish is still in the deep freeze. You may think takeout is your only option, but did you know that you can cook food from frozen?

Follow this tip: Foods, like salmon and chicken can be safely cooked from frozen. Yes, really! Keep in mind that it will take about 50% longer to reach a safe serving temperature.

Read more: How To Cook Chicken Breast from Frozen