Is there a problem with defrosting meat on the counter?

So, you wake up craving a homemade steak. There are a few ingredients you need to get from the grocery store, so it seems like a good idea to leave the meat out to thaw while you run to the store.

Food safety experts disagree!

Why? Is there a problem with defrosting meat on the counter?

You should never leave meat on the counter to defrost. When the temperature of the meat rises to room temperature, bacteria start to grow, mainly due to the presence of the natural juices. The longer you leave the meat out, the more dangerous the meat is for consumption.

The USDA calls it the ‘danger zone.’ It is when the temperature is between 40 – 140 °F for around two hours or more. The meat may not seem like it has gone bad, but there is the possibility of it causing sickness from food poisoning.

So it turns out that it is not a good idea to leave meat on the counter to defrost. So we will take a more in-depth look into what can wrong during the defrosting process and also provide safer alternative defrosting methods.

The Big Thaw

We love USDA’s monikers for these things. First, the ‘Danger Zone’ and now ‘The Big Thaw.’ Food safety authorities seem to take thawing very seriously.

The big thaw is simply stated as the process of defrosting – the meat going from frozen to completely unfrozen state. Believe it or not, the big thaw doesn’t require high temperatures. It can effectively take place in your refrigerator as well- because the frozen juices in the meat start to melt as soon as the temperature rises above the freezing point, i.e., 32 °F.

The big thaw must continue in temperature between 37 to 39 °F.

As soon as the temperature hits 40 °F, the meat starts to enter the danger zone. And from this point onwards, the number of bacteria can double every 20 minutes.

Now, think of how many hours you usually leave the meat out on the counter, and do the math.

But wasn’t that such an easy thing to do? You could leave the meat on the counter and come home to a perfectly thawed, ready-to-cook steak every time.

Now that you know the risks of defrosting on the counter, you need to find an alternative defrosting that keeps exposes the meat to the danger zone for the shortest time.

Food Safety 101 - How to handle and defrost meat

Method #1 – Defrost Meat with Cold Water

Keep in mind that when we say that high temperature is bad during the big thaw, it’s not just air temperature. Hot water is just as bad as hot air during this process.

If you need to defrost your meat quickly, do it under running cold water. Trust me. It would take almost the same amount of time as hot water because the liquids do not need too high a temperature to start melting.

However, there is a proper way to defrost meat with cold water.

It is best to put the meat in a ziplock plastic bag or any other leak-proof plastic bag. Now, instead of placing the meat directly under running water, put the bag with the meat under running water. It is best to keep the meat in a bowl and then run water over it. The meat will thaw much quickly when it is submerged as well.

Keep the water flowing until you can touch the meat and tell that it is thawed. The time that will take depends on the size and amount of meat. An average beef steak shouldn’t take longer than half an hour. More significant cuts might take hours, which is why this may not be the best method for more substantial cuts.

If you are worried about wasting a lot of water with this method, you can set the tap on drizzle. Fill the bowl with water, and then change it with fresh water in about 20 minutes. This method will take a little longer to defrost the meat.

Method #2 – Microwave the Meat

Unless you are still using the old microwave from the 70s, your microwave will have a ‘defrost’ option.

Using the microwave is probably the most effortless and quickest way to defrost meat. Modern microwaves allow you to defrost up to 10 to 11 pounds of meat quickly. You just need to remove all packaging and put meat in a microwave-safe container. Make sure the container is big enough to prevent the spilling of liquids. You don’t want a mess even if your microwave is a self-cleaning one.

Depending on how powerful your microwave is, this may take anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes.

Take a look at how to use a microwave to defrost meat.

How to Defrost Meat using a Microwave Oven(HD)

Sounds easy and efficient. There are a few concerns about this method.

Microwaves may not be the best for thick cuts, which may not thaw evenly. It is best for ground meats or small chunks. Also, just like our first method, this isn’t exactly a very environment-friendly option.

Important Note: For both cold water and microwave methods, you need to cook the meat as soon as it thaws. Every minute after the big thaw pushes the meat towards the danger zone. You should not refreeze meat thawed in the microwave or a water bath.

Method #3 – Thaw in a Refrigerator

If there is one thing we learned today, it is that thawing at high temperature is a big ‘no.’

Not only is this the safest method, but it is also an environmentally friendly one. Your refrigerator can let the meat thaw at the safest temperature, i.e., less than 40°F but above 37°F. You need to check the temperature of your refrigerator to ensure it falls within this range.

The only downside is that it can take some time. A rough estimate is 24 hours for every 5 pounds. Small cuts will take slightly less time than larger cuts, but the difference of a few hours is almost negligible when we are talking in terms of days.

The upsides, however, outweigh the cons and make the process worth the wait. One of the most significant advantages you have here is that this meat doesn’t have to be cooked immediately. You can postpone your plan for a day or two without ruining the meat.

You can get this excellent defrosting tray on amazon to prevent meat juices from dripping in the refrigerator

Related Questions

Can I defrost meat in the dishwasher?

No. The USDA has issued a warning against using any such life-hack no matter how many times you see it on the internet. Defrosting meat in a dishwasher is just as dangerous as defrosting meat on the counter.

Can I put frozen meat in a slow cooker?

A slow cooker is for cooking meat, not thawing it. When you put frozen meat in this cooker, it either remains partially uncooked or ends up spending a lot of time in the danger zone before fully cooked. So, it is not a good idea.

Can I cook meat without defrosting?

Yes. The USDA not only approves the method but also recommends it as safe. However, the cooking time might increase by 50 percent, and larger cuts might not cook evenly.


The conclusion is simple and straightforward. Your kitchen counter is not a safe place to defrost meat. Defrosting on the counter allows bacteria to grow once the temperature of the meat rises above a certain point.

The safest of all the methods is to let it thaw in the refrigerator. This method might take longer, but waiting is worth your family’s health. Plan your meals to enjoy the healthiest meat dishes every time.


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