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Is it some how better to thaw out meat in a refrigerator versus on the counter versus running hot water over it versus in the microwave? Is it the longer the time meat has to thaw out the more taste is retained? If I'm pressed for time, could combinations be used: for example leaving meat on the counter for 1 hour and then microwaving it until completed thawed?

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Are you asking in the context of flavor vs. speed/convenience alone, or weighing the factors of speed/convenience with flavor and with food safety? –  MargeGunderson Nov 17 '12 at 1:19
    
Everything, I have no idea why or if it's preferable to thaw meat out in the refrigerator vs a microwave (obviously microwave's faster but is it healtheir or tastier or anything else when using the refrigerator). –  Celeritas Nov 17 '12 at 1:54
    
We all hate meetings, but I expect you meant "thaw out meat" rather than "thaw out meet" in the first sentence. :) –  JYelton Nov 19 '12 at 19:21
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I would think that USDA would err on the side of conservative when it comes to safety, especially with no financial interests in the equation

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Big_Thaw/

Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter, or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the "Danger Zone," between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.

When thawing frozen food, it's best to plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator where it will remain at a safe, constant temperature — at 40 °F or below.

There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

They're all covered in the above link, but here's the fastest one since it best meets your requirement of reasonably quick results:

Microwave thawing
When thawing food in a microwave, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process (bringing the food to "Danger Zone" temperatures). Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and, indeed, the food may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.

After thawing in the microwave, always cook immediately after, whether microwave cooking, by conventional oven, or grilling.

Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.

And when all else fails:

Cooking without thawing
When there is not enough time to thaw frozen foods, or you're simply in a hurry, just remember: it is safe to cook foods from the frozen state. The cooking will take approximately 50% longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry.

From personal experience, I prefer the cold water method to microwave for fast thawing, but I rarely if ever use a microwave anyway so others on here might have techniques that minimize the flavor/quality downside of it.

The factors that make the microwave method less safe are what also lower the quality, taste and texture of the food – the unevenly thawed parts, over-cooking some of it while undercooking other areas, etc.

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I agree completely, but I'd note two other things: thawing in water has the occasional disadvantage of losing flavor, if the food was not packaged in a water-tight container, or the container was damaged, which is why I prefer refrigerator thawing if time allows, and cooking from frozen should usually be done at a significantly lower temperature, as otherwise the inside will be undercooked when the outside is done (or, in some cases, may even remain frozen). –  Theodore Murdock Nov 17 '12 at 5:53
    
@TheodoreMurdock: Excellent points, thanks for adding! I prefer the long way also, just putting out the quickest for the OP and anyone else occasionally forced to compromise taste with a fast thaw. The extremely rare times I even freeze meat it's already wrapped almost enough to survive a nuclear attack, but I should have clarified the importance of thorough wrapping when exposing to excessive amounts of water. –  MargeGunderson Nov 17 '12 at 6:00
    
The good thing about thawing in the fridge too is that if you change your mind about cooking the item you can refreeze it whereas you can't do that if you used the microwave. –  Stefano Nov 19 '12 at 11:57
    
@Stefano: that seems like it would negatively impact the taste/mouthfeel, if not the safety. Maybe someone will weigh in who's tried that with various types of meat? –  MargeGunderson Nov 19 '12 at 21:04
    
Freezing in general will negatively impact the quality of the meat but if the choice is between slightly impaired texture caused by refreezing or the food waste caused by throwing perfectly good meat out there really is only one choice. –  Stefano Nov 20 '12 at 10:17
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