How Bad Is It (Really) to Defrost Your Meat on the Counter?

Think there’s nothing wrong with leaving frozen meat out at room temperature to defrost? You might want to change your ways once you find what happens as meat warms up outside of your fridge.

Photo: Siri Stafford/

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Pulling a package of frozen meat out of your freezer and leaving it to sit at room temperature is a pretty easy way to take it from rock hard to perfectly pliable. But is leaving raw meat sitting out for hours at a time really the best way to defrost it? It turns out this method might be more unsanitary than you think.

You already know raw meat requires careful handling to prevent food-borne illness and bacterial growth. But while you might be washing your hands and carefully cooking your chicken, beef and other types of meat, how you defrost frozen meat matters just as much. 

Find out if you’re putting yourself and your food at risk and learn how to defrost your meat safely.

Bacteria develops faster than you think

While leaving meat alone to come up to room temperature might sound like a faster approach, it’s pretty problematic. Sure, you aren’t doing anything to your frozen food. But the problem is meat becomes more delicate and bacteria-prone once it reaches room temperature.

As the USDA explains, frozen raw meat is safe indefinitely when it’s completely frozen. Bacteria can’t grow or multiply once meat is frozen and stored in temps lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. However, leaving meat out on the counter or in the sink all day while it defrosts means you’re allowing the meat to reach temperatures warmer than 40 degrees. And once meat hits 41 degrees or higher, it enters a bacterial danger zone.

Any bacteria that were present in your raw meat before it was frozen can start to multiply in the warmer temperature of your kitchen. The warmer the meat becomes, the more rapidly bacteria will increase. Plus, as the meat thaws, it won’t thaw evenly. The exterior will thaw first, leaving the center still frozen. This means the outer layer of your raw meat will spend the most amount of time in the danger zone, rapidly collecting potentially dangerous bacteria while the interior defrosts. 

As a result, the USDA recommends that perishable foods – including raw meat – never be left out at room temperature for more than two hours. So, keeping meat in various stages of the defrosting process out all day can leave you with a bacteria-riddled dinner.

Is it safe to defrost meat under cold or hot water?

Okay, so leaving frozen meat out thawing at room temperature is a bad idea. But what if you speed up the process and toss your meat under cold or hot water?

Even if you’re in a pinch and totally forgot to defrost your meat hours ago, it isn’t exactly the best – or the safest – idea to toss frozen meat under a steady flow of cold or hot water.

Hot water in particular is a pretty bad idea. Sure, running steaming hot water over frozen meat will defrost it quickly. But it’ll also start to cook the meat in the process. Like we mentioned above, the exterior of frozen meat defrosts faster than the center. And as you run it under hot water, it’ll start to cook the exterior of the meat while it’s still frozen solid inside.

Cold water is a bit better, but it still isn’t ideal. The USDA notes that putting frozen meat under cold water can be done safely, but it requires careful attention to ward off bacteria (and you don’t want to just run the tap for hours). Here’s how to do it without putting yourself at risk:

  • Make sure your frozen raw meat is in a leak-proof package or plastic bag (leaks can introduce bacteria from the air or surrounding environment)
  • Submerge the meat in cold tap water – don’t keep it under a constant stream of running water
  • Change the water every 30 minutes
  • Once your meat is fully thawed, make sure to cook it immediately

A pound of frozen meat should thaw with this method in about an hour. 3 to 4 pounds of meat will take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours to thaw. It’s a good rule of thumb to estimate about 30 minutes of cold water submersion per pound of meat.

If you really need your meat defrosted ASAP, you’re better off trying a different method – like your microwave.

Is defrosting in the microwave okay?

Your microwave might be fast and come with a built-in defrost setting, but it isn’t the best or safest choice for thawing frozen meat. 

The USDA says using your microwave’s defrosting feature is perfectly safe, as long as you cook your raw meat immediately after thawing it. That means you can’t let your meat hang out while you prep the rest of your recipe; because you’ve heated it up, you’ve pushed its temperature into the “danger zone” for bacteria.

And microwave thawing comes with another potential danger. Some areas of the meat can become warmer than others, and they can begin to cook during the defrosting process. Bacteria may begin to grow when this happens, and once bacteria start multiplying, your meat can become unsafe to eat in just a short amount of time.

This is the safest way to defrost meat

Defrosting your frozen meat at room temperature might not be safe, and using water can be iffy. But there’s one foolproof way to bring your meat up to just the right temperature without running the risk of consuming dangerous bacteria: refrigerator thawing.

Refrigerator thawing is considered the safest way you can defrost meat. It does take time – a full 24 hours in most instances – but it’s the only foolproof method. And like leaving meat out on your kitchen counter, it’s super hands-off.

All you have to do is take your raw meat out of the freezer and store it in your refrigerator. Just make sure you plan in advance!

Letting frozen meat sit inside your refrigerator is the perfect solution because your fridge offers just the right temperature to keep bacteria at bay. Most refrigerators sit between 35 and 40 degrees inside, a range that’s exactly what you need to prevent bacteria from developing or multiplying. And all you have to do is leave your meat alone while it slowly comes up to temperature.

Plus, there’s an added bonus. While thawing with cold water or your microwave means you’ll need to cook your meat ASAP, you’ll have more of a grace period when you thaw inside your fridge. Once raw meat comes up to 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it’ll stay safe and usable for one to two more days. If you’re thawing red meat, like beef or lamb, you’ll get an extra three to five days before it must be used.

Don’t want to wait? Try this!

If you can’t wait a day or two to use your frozen meat, there is one other perfectly safe way to get it defrosted – and it works fast. Just cook it!

Seriously, cooking frozen food is totally fine. It will slow down your cook time, taking about 50 percent longer than usual, but it completely eliminates the threat of bacteria and gets dinner on the table in no time. So, when you suddenly realize you forget to defrost meat in advance, don’t be afraid to grab a pan and start cooking.

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