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Thaw meat, poultry, and fish the right way

Turkey being removed from a refrigerator freezer
When freezing foods, ensure they're packed in strong, sealed plastic. You'll want to keep them in plastic if you choose to quick-thaw items in ice water later on.

Plan ahead, use the fridge, or do a quick-thaw carefully

The holiday turkey purchased a day before the big dinner that winds up thawing in a pan on the kitchen counter is a bacterial catastrophe waiting to happen. Don't take that risk.

Thawing meat, poultry, fish, and seafood in temperatures of 5°C or above is just an invitation for food-borne bacteria to multiply quickly. Thawing in the fridge – sometimes starting days in advance – is your best, safest bet. And if you need to quick-thaw, do it in the microwave or in ice water, ensuring the water stays very cold.

Here's what Health Canada has to say about thawing meat the best way, in the fridge:

  1. Place the meat in a clean container or platter that will hold any juices leaking out of the food.
  2. Place the container on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to prevent accidental cross-contamination with other food.
  3. Cook the meat as soon as it's defrosted.

How to win the battle against bacteria

Proper defrosting reduces your risk of food poisoning, which happens when you eat food that contains harmful bacteria. Meat, poultry, fish, and seafood must reach a safe internal cooking temperature to kill bacteria in the meat.

Food that's not thawed properly can have bacteria that may have been present on its surface before freezing can begin to multiply. And if raw meat is partly frozen when you cook it, it can lead to uneven cooking that potentially doesn't kill all harmful bacteria.

Health Canada also recommends sanitizing everything that comes in contact with meat, fish, and poultry, including your hands, the sink, dishes, utensils, and counter surfaces.

Chicken and turkey by the numbers

Health Canada advises it will take about 24 hours for each 2.5 kg (5 pounds) of poultry. For most other meats, 24 hours in the fridge is usually enough.

Take precautions to ensure thawed meat and its juices don't spread around the kitchen. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap before and after handling raw meat, poultry or fish, use a separate cutting board for it, and never place food (fresh or cooked) on a plate or other surface that held raw meat or fish.

One quick method: ice water

Tossing your frozen food in a sink filled with cold tap water isn't safe. Be sure to wrap meat, poultry, fish, or seafood in leak-proof plastic and use ice to keep the water cool. It's still going to take a while – and you probably don't want to take the sink out of commission for an extended period. One great option for larger items, such as a whole chicken or turkey, is to use a large bucket or a cooler to house the food in ice water.

How long will it take? The rule of thumb is about 30 minutes per pound, which adds up to about eight hours for a 16-pound turkey. The necessity here is to monitor the water temperature regularly. Use a meat thermometer to ensure the water never rises above 4°C. Add ice to keep that temperature in the safe range.

If you use a microwave, cook immediately after

The microwave can be a handy quick-thaw method for smaller items, but only if you plan to cook the meat right away.

Health Canada recommends checking that all containers, lids, and wraps going into the microwave are clearly marked as microwave-safe. That means no polystyrene trays, plastic wraps, or cardboard boxes. Use a thoroughly cleaned container or platter to collect any juices that leak out of the food – you don't want to contaminate your microwave.

The defrost button on a microwave can be tricky, and epicurious.com says it can't be trusted. The website offers a detailed guide on thawing different meats, vegetables, and stews.

Did you know? The biggest haven for bacteria in your home could be your dishcloth. Studies have shown that many homeowners regularly re-use dishcloths – sometimes for days – before washing them. One study of U.S. and Canadian homes published in 2014 analyzed 82 dishcloths and found that coliform bacteria was present in nine out of 10 of the cloths tested.

Get more details about safely defrosting food at canada.ca.

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