This is probably one of the most common questions I hear as a meat scientist. If you Google ‘thawing meat’, the first hit that comes up is a fact sheet from USDA cleverly named "The Big Thaw.". It will tell you that there are three ways to properly thaw meat. 1. Refrigerator, 2. Cold water, 3. Microwave. Those will all work, but there are pros and cons to each. Here are my thoughts:
1. Refrigerator. Thawing meat in the fridge takes longer than the other two methods, but it requires the least work on your part. My biggest problem is remembering to put the frozen meat in the fridge in the morning on my way out the door. Steaks, chicken breasts, packages of ground beef, and things of that size will probably be thawed by the time you get home in the evening, but larger cuts like roasts or whole birds may need to be thawed overnight.
It’s best to thaw uncooked meat on the bottom shelf so that the meat juice won’t leak down onto other things in the fridge. In my fridge, the bottom shelf is the hardest to get to and is usually the hardest to find a place to set something new, so I set my meat on a plate to catch anything that may seep out of the package. I find that a nice glass pie plate is best because the sides are taller than a dinner plate and it will hold in the leaking meat juice. (and, I never, ever make an actual pie, so it makes me feel good to get use out of the pie plates my dad gave me.) Then you can just run the dirty pie plate through the dishwasher and its ready to make more pies (yeah, right). One nice thing about this method is that if you decide to go out to eat after work rather than come home in cook, the thawing meat is fine to wait until tomorrow or even a couple of days. (I'm always looking for a good excuse to eat out).
2. Cold water. Getting all three of us out the door, clothed and fed is really more than we can handle most mornings, so I usually don’t remember to set something in the fridge to thaw for that night. So, the cold water method is the one I use the most to thaw meat.
Why not hot water? Well, hot water would thaw the meat, but it would also start to cook it and it could cause parts of the meat to get above 40 degrees. That’s the temperature where microbes can start to grow.
Cold water, right out of the tap works great. I just plug up the sink and set in the meat until it’s covered with water. Heat is transferred faster through water than air, so it goes faster than on the counter. (That’s why all those people that went in the water on ‘Titanic’ were screwed).
If your meat is in a vacuum package (a sealed plastic bag with no air) you can just stick it directly in the water. If it’s wrapped in paper or one of those foam packages with the overwrap from the grocery store, I would take it out and put it in a plastic baggie. The baggie will contain the meat juice and allow the heat from the water to thaw the meat.
If I’m really in a hurry, I will let the meat set in the cold water for a while, then let that water drain, and run in another batch. The frozen meat cools the water (stick your hands in it, it’s a lot colder than it was), so the water from the tap will be a little warmer and will help the process go a little faster.
3. Microwave. Most microwaves have meat thawing settings, and I have been known to use them for ground beef or sausage. Usually those are packaged in chubs (little sacks) with clips and I am in a big hurry to get them cooked. I don’t like the microwave method for steaks or roasts or anything ‘intact’ (that means not ground). I think it thaws unevenly and part of your meat gets cooked, while part of it is still frozen. Always put your meat on a plate (another great use for pie plates) when you thaw in the microwave. You don’t want meat juice all over the rotating plate in the microwave.
Now remember, it’s ok to cook from frozen. It just takes a little longer and it’s hard to get spices on frozen meat.