published Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Defrost food the safe way

How many times have you opened the freezer door and just stood there looking, wishing you had thought ahead and left something in the refrigerator to thaw for dinner? To hurry things along, maybe you've submerged your still-frozen entree in hot water to thaw it.

I've been guilty of this too and worse -- leaving frozen foods out on the counter all day to thaw -- with no apparent side effects. Maybe St. Elmo, the patron saint of stomach problems, was looking out for me and protecting my family from food-borne illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 76 million people in the United States become ill from pathogens, or disease-causing substances, in food each year. Of these people, about 5,000 die.

Improperly thawing meats is one way the pathogens can enter your body.

The USDA offers these safe methods for thawing foods.

  • Refrigerator thawing: This requires planning. A large frozen item needs at least a day (24 hours) for every 5 pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts require a full day to thaw. After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry and seafood should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before cooking; red meat cuts (such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks) can last another three to five days. Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

  • Cold-water thawing: This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the meat tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product. The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, with the water changed every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small, 1-pound packages of meat, poultry or seafood may thaw in as little as an hour or less. A 3- to 4-pound package may take two to three hours. If thawed completely, the food must be cooked immediately. Foods thawed by the cold-water method should be cooked before refreezing.

  • Microwave thawing: When thawing food in a microwave, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and the food may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow. After thawing in the microwave, always cook immediately after, whether microwave cooking, by conventional oven or grilling.

Now you know, but I can't say I won't be tempted to leave the chicken out on the counter for a while to thaw. Sometimes a harried schedule just doesn't allow time for good sense.

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