Nothing is worse than coming home after a long day at work to realize you forgot to thaw the frozen hamburger meat for tonight’s dinner. Don’t call for take out just yet. You can defrost ground beef safely (whether you’ve got a few minutes or a few hours) and save dinner.
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Meat Safety Basics
First let’s go over a few best practices for handling meat. The USDA suggests either cooking or freezing hamburger meat within 2 days of purchase for the best quality. Refrigerate or freeze hamburger meat as soon as possible to slow the growth of bacteria. If refrigerated, keep at 40 °F (4.4 °C) or below and use within 1 or 2 days.
Preparing Hamburger Meat for The Freezer
While this step can’t help right now if you’re staring at a block of frozen chuck while your kids cling to your legs asking “What’s for dinner?”, it can make the next time a bit easier.
When choosing hamburger meat at the grocery store either opt for the tube style (known as a chub). If you prefer the Styrofoam tray style, remove the tray and moisture-absorbing pad from the meat and store the ground beef in a zip-top freezer bag. Look for packaging that is tightly wrapped and not torn or wet.
I recommend placing the meat in a plastic bag so that any juices won’t transfer to other groceries. Always keep raw meats separate from your other groceries.
Tossing the hamburger tray and all into the freezer is easy after surviving the grocery store, but the packaging will freeze to the meat and slow down the defrosting process, causing the meat to thaw unevenly.
If you plan to store hamburger meat long-term in your freezer, wrap the packaging in aluminum foil or an extra freezer bag to protect against freezer burn, and clearly label the package with the date. Ground beef can be frozen safely indefinitely but can begin to lose quality after the first 4-6 months.
What Is the Best Way to Defrost Ground Beef?
According to the USDA, it’s best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator.
How to Defrost Hamburger Meat in the Refrigerator: 24 hours
By far the simplest method for defrosting ground beef, tossing a frozen pack of ground beef in the fridge will take the longest time.
Step 1: Plan Ahead
This method does require at least a day’s forethought. If your hamburger meat is frozen hard
like in a deep freeze or your refrigerator settings are very cold, you may need closer to two days to fully thaw a pound of ground beef.
Step 2: Place Meat In The Fridge
Simply place your frozen hamburger (package and all) in the refrigerator. I do recommend placing the package in a large bowl or zip-top bag to capture any juices and condensation that may leak once the meat is thawed unless detailing and sanitizing your refrigerator crevices is your idea of a fun way to spend an evening.
Step 3: Wait
This method can take one to two days to completely defrost your meat. Knowing your fridge and how long it typically takes to thaw meat will come in handy for meal planning.
This is definitely the slowest method for defrosting your meat, but it is also the safest, as it does not shock the temperature of the beef, leaving it vulnerable to bacteria.
How to Defrost Hamburger Meat in Cold Water Bath: 1 hour
A cold water bath is a simple and relatively quick way to safely thaw hamburger meat.
Step 1: Place Meat in the Proper Packaging
If you purchased your meat in water-tight packaging, you can leave it unopened. If not, remove your beef from the packaging and place it in a leak-proof zip-top bag.
Step 2: Place Meat in the Water
Place your meat in a large bowl filled with cold tap water – never use hot water, it can partially cook the meat, putting your hamburger in a temperature range that harbors bacterial growth. Change the water every 30 minutes to maintain a food-safe temperature or place ice cubes in the water to keep it cool.
After about 1 hour (for one pound of ground beef) simply take the meat out of the packaging and cook it as usual.
How To Defrost Hamburger Meat with Cold Running Water: 1 hour
Another option for using water is to place the frozen ground beef in a bowl in your sink and run cold water over it. This can slightly decrease the defrost time of the beef and you won’t have to constantly regulate the water temperature in the bowl – but you will have to listen to a constant stream of water for about an hour.
How To Defrost Hamburger Meat in a Microwave: 8 minutes
If you only have a few minutes to find a solution, using your microwave is the quickest way to defrost your hamburger meat. While quick, this option definitely has its drawbacks. Keep in mind that this method, while quick, may partially cook some of your ground beef, and it can be tougher to defrost thicker chunks of ground beef.
We recommend only using this method when you’re in a major time crunch.
Step 1: Remove The Packaging
First remove your meat from sealed plastic pouches, Styrofoam trays, and any sort of plastic wrap prior to defrosting in the microwave. Microwaving these kinds of packages may give off harmful fumes, melt plastics into the meat, or release harmful chemicals into your meat. None of which you want in your famous taco casserole.
Step 2: Grab A Microwave Safe Dish
Place your meat on a microwave-safe plate or dish. The meat will likely create some juices during the defrosting process so a dish with a bit of a rim to contain juices is best.
Step 3: Microwave Settings
If your microwave has a built-in defrost setting, follow the instructions on the screen. You will likely choose the type and weight of the item you want to defrost. If your microwave does not have a built-in defrost setting, a good rule of thumb is to put the ground beef in for about 5 minutes per pound, flipping it over halfway through.
Step 4: Keep Careful Watch
This is a hands-on process! While your meat is defrosting, stop and check on it every 2 minutes. Check that the edges are not cooking, remove any pieces that begin to cook, and break up the ground beef when you can to help it defrost more evenly.
Never Defrost Hamburger Meat in Hot Water
While recent studies have shown success in safely thawing thin cuts of meat in hot water, there’s not yet definitely a safe way to thaw thicker meats, like a chub of hamburger meat in hot water.
Also unless you are constantly stirring and adding more hot water a cold zone develops around the food and insulates it from the remaining warm water, cooling the water bath and impacting thawing.
The time needed for the hot water to thaw to the core will take long enough that there may be time for significant bacterial growth on the surface. It’s safest to continue thawing hamburger meat and other meats in the refrigerator or in water under 40 degrees.
Never Defrost Ground Beef on the Counter
While it may seem like an easy option, leaving hamburger meat out on the counter to thaw is downright dangerous. The outer areas of the meat will enter the Danger Zone while the inner core is still frozen. Bacteria will thrive on that outer layer, putting your family at risk of food poisoning.
Can I refreeze my thawed ground beef?
If you’ve safely thawed hamburger meat in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking. Because of the repeated loss of moisture in the thawing process, you may notice a slight loss of taste quality and changes in texture. Ground beef that has thawed and been refrozen will be best in a chili or casserole where you’re less likely to notice any differences.
Why You Should Defrost Hamburger Meat
In a pinch, you can safely cook ground beef straight from frozen but you will notice a difference in taste and texture. Frozen ground beef also limits you in what you can do, for example, you won’t be able to shape your meat into burgers or meatballs.
Cooking straight from frozen means you’re missing out on some flavor too. When ground beef is frozen, the natural juices in the meat form ice crystals. When cooking frozen meat, these ice crystals will evaporate and be cooked off, rather than keeping the moisture and flavors in the meat.
Frozen beef is also extremely difficult to develop a sear. A moist piece of meat is nearly impossible to get that beautiful brown crust of a sear.
Cooking frozen hamburger will also take up to 50% longer than the time it will take to cook fully thawed or fresh meat. This can cause problems with uneven cooking, where the exterior of your meat is cooked but the inside is still frozen – leaving you walking the line between food positioning and dry meat.
Defrosting your ground beef will make the cooking process faster, the flavor and texture better, and your life easier.
Using Ground Beef: Recipe Ideas
Ground beef dishes are perfect for busy weeknights. It’s inexpensive, cooks fast, and is super versatile, with the ability to be turned into simple and complex dishes with very little effort. If you’ve stocked up on a ground beef sale here are a few ideas to inspire your next weeknight dish:
Meatloaf: A simple classic weeknight meal, can be made quickly and easily in the oven with the addition of simple pantry staples.
Hamburgers: The go-to ground beef recipe, can be made on the grill or in a skillet. Keep it simple or get fancy with toppings and stuffings.
Chili: A great hearty, slow-cooked meal with ingredients you likely have on hand. Toss ingredients in a slow cooker or Dutch oven for a ready-when-you-are dinner.
Meatballs: An easy Italian staple, they can stand on their own as a crowd-pleaser app or serve with sauce and pasta for a filling weeknight meal.
Taco Meat: One of my favorite ground beef recipes, taco meat can also be used in other classic Mexican dishes like burritos, enchiladas, or nachos – most can be as healthy (or not!) as you like.
Salisbury Steak: Another go-to meal made with ground beef, easily made with other ingredients that you already have on hand
Lasagna: A perfect dish for elevating your ground beef with Italian flavors for a delicious weeknight meal – go for a no-boil noodle to save time.
Shepherd’s Pie: A traditional meal that is perfect for sharing with a large group of people
Ground beef is really a do-it-all dependable protein, able to combine with a few ingredients on hand to make a delicious meal quickly. The next time you need to thaw frozen hamburger meat, remember these techniques to keep your family fed safely.