The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Don't Be a Turkey! Thaw Your Thanksgiving Bird in COLD Water

Would it surprise you to find out that there are idiots posing as experts on the Internet? Nah, I didn't think so. But when one of these idiots starts passing out dangerous information, there is cause for legitimate concern.

I was hunting online for some Thanksgiving turkey ideas and I came across a food website that apparently publishes anything and everything submitted. Okay, on the upside, novice cooks get exposed to lots of different recipes, tips and ideas that way. On the downside, novice cooks get exposed to lots of different recipes, tips and ideas that way. Lacking basic culinary knowledge and experience, bad advice can lead a beginner deep into the weeds in a hurry. Sometimes bad advice results in a bland sauce. Sometimes it results in a trip to the hospital.

Case in point: the author of the article in question advocated thawing a frozen turkey in hot water. I immediately started screaming at my computer. Realizing that my computer wasn't listening, I re-read the line in case I had missed something. I hadn't. Some idiot really was telling people to thaw a frozen turkey in hot water.

Now, maybe that's the way Grandma did it. I've known more than a few people whose mothers or grandmothers taught them to thaw frozen foods in warm water. It's logical, right? You want to melt something frozen, you apply heat. That may have been common practice a hundred years ago, but we've learned an awful lot about food safety and hygiene since those days. Grandma may have had a lot of good ideas about cooking, but dunking a frozen bird in a sink full of hot water just isn't one of them.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service clearly states: “Foods should never be thawed or even stored on the counter, or defrosted in hot water.”

Writing on meat quality and safety, Purdue University Animal Sciences says, “ Never thaw meat in warm water as this will allow bacteria to grow on the warm outer surface.”

And an online article published by the University of Illinois Extension Service regarding thawing meat unambiguously declares, “Never defrost meat in hot water.”

There are dozens of other citations of this type all over the Net, but if I stumbled upon the idiot you can bet somebody else did, too.

The food industry recognizes and recommends three methods of thawing frozen meat. One method does involve water, but it's COLD water. Not hot, not warm, not tepid, lukewarm, or room temperature, but COLD water.

It's important to understand that bacteria are everywhere. You can control them with proper hygiene but you can't entirely eliminate them. For culinary purposes, food safety standards have established a “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The growth rate of most common bacteria is extremely retarded at temperatures below 40 degrees, and most can't survive temperatures in excess of 140 degrees. But they are happy, thriving, prolific little creatures in the intervening hundred degree spread, the “danger zone.”

So when you follow the idiotic advice to stick your frozen turkey or ham or chicken or whatever in a tub of hot water to thaw it, here's what happens. Let's say you're using hot tap water, about 110 degrees or so. The outside surface of the frozen meat will rise to a temperature above 40 degrees fairly quickly, while the inside will stay nice and frosty for quite awhile. In the meantime, any stray salmonella, e coli, campylobacter, or the ever-popular Clostridium botulinum that might be hanging around on the surface of the meat will start to party. Since some bacteria can double in number every twenty minutes at temperatures above 40 degrees, it'll be quite a gathering by the time your meat is thawed. By this time, they will have mutated into heat resistant toxins that cannot be cooked away. And when you pop that delicious hunk of pre-spoiled meat into the oven, it'll be somewhat like cooking roadkill. Yummy in the tummy!

So, how DO you thaw frozen meat in water? According to the USDA, “the food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, meat tissue can absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product.

The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes or so as it continues to thaw. Small packages of meat or poultry – about a pound – may defrost in an hour or less. A 3 to 4 pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. If thawed completely, the food must be cooked immediately.”

I've also seen recommendations that encourage movement of the cold water, such as having the food item situated under slowly running water. This is probably okay for a pound of hamburger, but I don't know that it would be too economical to try it with a fifteen pound turkey. I do know of one enterprising cook who actually employed an aquarium pump to keep the water in a sink moving, but I'll stick with just changing the water at thirty minute intervals.

In case you were wondering, the other two approved thawing methods are refrigerator thawing and microwave thawing. The fridge method is easiest and most generally recommended. You just stick the frozen food in the old chill chest and wait it out. This is not the quickest way if you suddenly discover that you have extra guests for dinner. Even small quantities of meat will take most of a day to thaw out in the refrigerator. On the “pro” side of the ledger, meat thawed in the refrigerator does not have to be cooked immediately.
Say you thawed a roast for supper and your spouse decided to surprise you with dinner out. No problem. The roast will be okay for cooking tomorrow, whereas meats that are “quick thawed” should be used right away. And it's always a good idea to put the frozen meat on a tray or plate or something to catch any drippings as it thaws. The plate should be placed on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator. This helps prevent cross contamination with other things in your fridge.

The microwave method is, in my opinion, reserved for the truly desperate. Modern microwaves have a “defrost” setting on them. Good luck with that. My experience with “defrost” has been iffy, at best. Most people just stick the frozen item in the nuker, push the button, cross their fingers and hope. Microwaves work by exciting water molecules in food. So, “defrosting” is an attempt to excite them just a little bit. Kind of a tease, you know? “Don't get too excited there, little molecules. We wouldn't want you to....ooops.” And the meat comes out looking half cooked, which, essentially, it is, only it's cooked from the inside out rather than from the outside in and now you definitely need to finish cooking it immediately because it's warmed up enough that the bacteria are already starting to plan the party. No going back to the fridge for this steak. It's either the frying pan or the trash can. So while microwave thawing may be the fastest method, it's also the most unforgiving.

I had somebody ask me, “If thawing in warm water is not good because bacterial levels rise above 40 degrees, how is that not a factor when you thaw by microwaving? If I thawed with warm water and immediately cooked it, how is that any different than thawing by microwaving?”

Actually, it is a factor. As I said, microwaves heat from the inside out. In theory, at least, the microwaves on the “defrost” cycle are sent in pulses with longer intervals in between, thus allowing the meat to heat from the inside out without cooking. But anytime you apply heat to meat – “defrost” setting notwithstanding – you're cooking it. When you take that “defrosted” steak out of the nuker, even though the outside may be only marginally flirting with the “danger zone,” the inside has already begun to cook. That's why you have to slap it into a pan immediately.

On the other hand, thawing in water acts from the outside in. Cold water will gently thaw the exterior of the meat without cooking it. As long as you keep the water refreshed or moving, the meat will maintain a relatively stable temperature as it thaws. If you thaw the meat under hot water – average hot water from the tap is 110 degrees – the exterior will actually slow cook and be in the danger zone long before the interior is thawed.

So okay, I'll grant you that a 1/4 pound hamburger patty “quick thawed” in warm water probably won't be in the “danger zone” long enough to matter. But when you start talking about thick cuts of steak or whole chickens, or, goodness knows, a turkey, you're opening yourself up to risks that aren't worth taking.

A lot of people say, “I've been thawing meat in warm water (or on the counter) for years and I've never gotten sick.” Yeah, and I had a friend who rode motorcycles without a helmet for years. Until that one last time.

As for me, I'll stick with safe rather than sorry.

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