When to defrost meat, for the occasional (and spontaneous) cook
May 19, 2020 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Let's say I restock groceries every 7 days, and I want to cook a meat dish for dinner one of the following 6 nights, but it could be night 1 or night 6 or any night in between, depending on whim... what's the optimal day & time to move the meat from freezer to fridge for defrosting, to maximize the chances that my spontaneous desire for meat will be satisfied on a given night?

Note: I always have tofu and eggs in the fridge and am prepared to throw together something else if the meat's not ready. I don't particularly want a schedule that involves cooking meat multiple times a week.
posted by serelliya to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, different meats can stay fine in the 'frig without freezing for different lengths of time. Poultry and ground meats age more quickly and are generally good for about three days in the 'frig. Of course, you could cook them on the third day, refrigerate them cooked, and serve them on the fourth, fifth or even sixth day. Solid pieces of meats, like steaks, roasts, chops, can stay fine at 'frig temp for five or six days. (Of course, make sure anything you buy is fresh when you buy it!) Again, with solid pieces of meat, say a pot roast, you can cook it on day five, refrigerate it, and serve it on day six or seven or eight. Most cooks say a braised meat, like a pot roast or stew, is better tasting when reheated.

Related, you could roast a chicken on day three, serve it, and then use the refrigerated leftovers for chicken salad, chicken soup with stock made from the carcass, chicken ala king etc. on the fifth or sixth day.

In sum, I'm not against freezing meat. I'm just saying you can keep your household safe in many situations without freezing meat.

Seafood is more fragile, but I don't think you were asking about seafood.
posted by tmdonahue at 3:18 PM on May 19, 2020

I'm assuming you have a microwave, so consider just defrosting in the microwave rather than the fridge, which brings defrost times to the order of tens of minutes rather than days.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 3:28 PM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I’ve been using my sous vide to cook meat, eliminating the need to defrost ever again. This requires seasoning your meat before you freeze, and repackaging then in either a ziploc bag or vacuum seal.
posted by politikitty at 3:31 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

If the spontaneity is the core of your question, I would only ever buy meat in small, flat proportions where even if I forgot to defrost something the night before, it would be possible to defrost it within an hour or less by submerging the airtight package in cool water for 30 minutes per pound. Things like fish fillets, sausages, chicken parts, ground meat, maybe pork chops or steaks - meat that is 1" thick or less. No whole chickens, no pork butts, etc. (Or if you don't mind being more hands-on for the tradeoff of less overall time between pulling the meat out of the freezer and eating your dinner, you can defrost in a microwave, but be careful that your microwave doesn't start *cooking* the meat while defrosting it.)

Trying to calculate the optimal day to defrost your meat for a spontaneous meat meal within its best-tasting deadline depends enough on the thickness and delicateness of a given meat product that it affects the answer for what day is appropriate for what day range. Like, for fish and ground meat, I wouldn't go more than 24 hours after initiating defrost to cook it off, so those options are less flexible (must cook on Day 1 or Day 2). For a whole chicken or pork butt, I'd feel a lot more comfortable saying that I'd cook it within 4-5 days of initiating defrost, so that would make it more flexible within your constraints (can cook on Day 3, Day 4, or Day 5), but it also wouldn't be defrosted on Day 1 or maybe even Day 2.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 3:41 PM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

If I'm planning ahead I pull meat out 24 hours ahead to defrost in the fridge, but if not, an hour or less in a water bath gets it thawed enough to be able to cut and cook it. For me, that is spontaneous enough; I'd rather take that time than have meat sitting around in the fridge slowly aging.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:38 PM on May 19, 2020

If you defrost meat *in the fridge*, you can stick it back into the freezer after two days (at most). So you could defrost two meat choices at the same time so you have some options, and if you don’t want one of them, throw it back into the freezer. You can also cook stuff and *then* freeze it for another time if you need to cook the meat.

Fish and shellfish can defrost in 20 minutes under cold running water, that’s an easy day-of choice

If you don’t mind choosing in the morning or at lunch, honestly you can put it in cold water and have it a few hours later. (My mom used to just leave it on the counter and make it that night. I don’t think this is advised anymore, but, no one in my family ever got sick that way. I still do it.)

Boneless poultry and ground meats can be defrosted in the microwave if you REALLY have to go that way, but ugh I’ve always ended up cooking some of it that way. I’m sure there’s a trick I don’t bother with. Last resort for me.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:41 PM on May 19, 2020

This is the perfect use case for sous vide.

Otherwise, if you want to maximize spontaneity, focus on thin cuts of meat like cutlets, hanger steak, etc, that are thin enough to thaw quickly. If you are freezing ground meats, repackage them in ziplock bags like this to maximize their surface area, then they will thaw more quickly.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 4:48 PM on May 19, 2020

You can also cook meat from frozen in an instant pot, if you have one. It’s the only way I do chicken breasts any more.
posted by Weeping_angel at 6:10 PM on May 19, 2020

Thanks all for the great ideas! I marked as "best" the ones I'm most likely to use (e.g. I don't have sous vide equipment), but the overall consensus I'm hearing is that there are lots of ways to defrost meat day-of and I need to research microwave-defrosting more carefully.
posted by serelliya at 11:28 AM on May 20, 2020

I would personally avoid more than one thaw and refreeze cycle as described above, each time you do this you're altering the flavor and texture, more than once and it stops being subtle. (I also find this to be true of defrosting things in the microwave - always seems to change the texture).

I assume you're using "meat" to mean "mammals and poultry," but fish fillets can usually be broiled or baked straight out of the freezer.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:44 AM on May 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

You can thaw meat quickly by putting it on or in a cast-iron pan on the counter, even if it's not in airtight packaging.
posted by nicwolff at 9:40 AM on May 21, 2020

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