You were diligent about defrosting that package of chicken breasts for dinner, but plans changed and you’re not going to eat it tonight after all. Can you refreeze meat, or is that poultry better off in the garbage? The USDA says it can return to the freezer for another day—as long as it was thawed properly. Here are a few crucial things to know.
Can You Refreeze Meat?
Yes, with conditions. If meat is thawed in the refrigerator, it’s safe to refreeze without being cooked first, says the USDA. Any foods left outside the refrigerator for more than two hours or for more than one hour in temperatures higher than 90°F shouldn’t be refrozen. In other words, raw meat, poultry and fish can be refrozen as long as they were thawed safely in the first place. Raw frozen goods are also safe to cook and refreeze, as well as previously frozen cooked foods.
Thawing meat in the refrigerator requires a little foresight. (Imagine knowing what you’re going to eat for dinner two days from now.) But it’s the safest method there is and the only way meat is safe to refreeze. Just move the meat from the freezer to the refrigerator so it can gradually come down to a warmer temperature overnight or within 24 to 48 hours (more if you’re thawing something big, like a whole turkey). Once thawed in the fridge, ground meat, stew meat, poultry and seafood are safe to cook for another day or two. Roasts, chops and steaks of beef, pork or lamb will keep in the fridge for three to five days.
If you need to defrost something but don’t have a whole day to wait, don’t panic. Cold water thawing, meaning the food is in a leak-proof package or bag submerged in cold water, can take one to a few hours, depending on the meat. One-pound packages may be ready to cook in less than an hour, while three- and four-pound packages will take two or three hours. Just be sure to replace the tap water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw; if not, your frozen meat is basically just acting as an ice cube. If you have even less time, using the microwave can save the day, only if you plan to cook it immediately after thawing. Here’s the thing—foods defrosted by cold water or microwave thawing should not be refrozen without being cooked first, says the USDA. And you should never, ever defrost anything on the kitchen counter.
How Refreezing Meat Can Affect Its Flavor and Texture
So, if your plans change and you’re postponing your date with that frozen salmon fillet, it’s totally safe to refreeze as long as it initially thawed in the refrigerator. But just because you can refreeze once-thawed meat, poultry and fish doesn’t mean you’ll want to. Freezing and thawing cause moisture loss. When ice crystals form, they damage the muscle fibers in meat, making it easy for the moisture within those fibers to escape, both while the meat is thawing and cooking. The result? Tougher, drier meat. According to Cook’s Illustrated, this is due to the release of soluble salts in the meat’s protein cells as a result of freezing. The salts cause the proteins to change shape and shorten, making for a tougher texture. The good news? Most of the damage happens after one freeze, so refreezing won’t dry it out much more than the first round did.
If you want to skip thawing altogether, more power to you. Meat, poultry or fish can be cooked or reheated in its frozen state, says the USDA. Just know it’ll take about one and a half times as long to cook, and you may notice a difference in quality or texture.
How to Thaw Meat Safely
The refrigerator method is the only way to go if there’s a chance you’ll end up refreezing what you’ve thawed. But there are several ways to thaw meat, poultry and fish that’s going to be cooked ASAP.
Thaw it on a plate on the bottom shelf of the fridge up to two days before you plan on cooking it. In its original packaging, half a pound of meat can take up to 12 hours to thaw in the fridge. Save big on defrosting time by dividing the beef into patties and freezing them in resealable bags. You can also submerge the meat in a leak-proof bag in a bowl of cold water to thaw it. Depending on how thick it is, it’ll take 10 to 30 minutes per half-pound to thaw. If you have no time, use the microwave. Put the frozen meat on a plate in a microwave-safe, resealable bag with a small opening for steam to escape. Run it for three to four minutes on defrost, turning the meat halfway through. Then, cook immediately.
Fridge thawing will take a minimum of 12 hours, but it’s the best method in terms of food safety and texture. Just move the meat to the bottom shelf of the fridge on a plate up to two days before you plan on cooking it (feel free to refreeze it if that doesn’t happen). Submerge it in cold water in a leak-proof bag if you have a couple hours of wait time and no potential need for refreezing; ground chicken will take about an hour, while larger pieces can take two or more. Be sure to refresh the water every half-hour or so. If you don’t have that kind of time, just cook it frozen—especially if you’re slow-cooking or braising. Sautéing and frying can be tough because the extra moisture will keep the outside of the chicken from browning.
Thawing steak in the fridge helps it retain its juiciness. Place it in the fridge on a plate 12 to 24 hours before you plan on cooking it. Steaks that are an inch thick will take about 12 hours to come to temperature, but bigger cuts will take longer.
The water method will work in a pinch too if you have a few hours. Just place the steak in a leak-proof bag and fully submerge it in a bowl of cold water. Thin steaks will take an hour or two to thaw and heavier cuts will take about twice as long. If you’re really pressed for time, you can lean on your microwave’s defrost setting and thaw it in minutes—just know it may zap the juiciness out of the meat and leave you with a tough piece of steak.
Transfer frozen fillets to the fridge about 12 hours before you plan to cook them. Leave the fish in its packaging, place it on a plate and pop it in the refrigerator. A pound of fish will be ready to prepare in about 12 hours, but heavier pieces will need more time, about a full day.
The cold water method will take you about an hour or less. Fill a large pot with cold water, put the fish in a leak-proof bag and submerge. Weigh it down if needed and replace the water every ten minutes. When each fillet is flexible and soft in the middle, they’re ready to go. If you’re going to defrost fish in your microwave, be sure to input its weight first. Stop defrosting once the fish is cold yet flexible; expect this method to take about six to eight minutes per pound of fish.
These lil’ guys only take about 12 hours to come down to temperature in the fridge. Take the shrimp out of the freezer, place them in a container with a lid or a bowl covered in plastic wrap and chill. If you have less time, place the frozen shrimp in a strainer or colander and submerge it in a bowl of cold water for about 20 minutes. Swap the water out every ten minutes and pat them dry before cooking.
Oh no! It’s Thanksgiving morning and the guest of honor is still frozen solid. Submerge the bird breast-side down in cold water (try a big pot or the sink) and rotate the water every half-hour. Expect to wait about 30 minute per pound. You can also just cook it frozen, but it’ll take about 50 percent longer than if you started with a thawed turkey. For instance, a 12-pounder thawed takes about three hours at 325°F to cook, but frozen it’ll take four and a half hours.