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I have found warm water to be a great way to quickly defrost meat and fish as opposed to just letting it sit outside the freezer, which is what my mom does.

But I wonder if there are any negative side effects to the method, as in, for example, compromised taste or compromised food safety. I do understand that the water shouldn't be too hot as to avoid actually cooking the frozen food.

  • I suspect there's an exact duplicate somewhere... related: acceptable ways to defrost and can I defrost on the counter. – Cascabel Mar 31 '15 at 21:47
  • i did search but the accepted answer in the first question only says "Under cool running water"... – amphibient Mar 31 '15 at 21:49
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    Yes, hence just "related" - that said, to be clear, do you mean warm running water, or a bucket full of warm water? – Cascabel Mar 31 '15 at 21:50
  • Is this meat sealed, in for example a ziplock bag, and water is touching the bag or is the meat physically touching the water? – WetlabStudent Apr 1 '15 at 0:54
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For a small fillet of frozen fish in a ziplock bag, this method will be fine because any single serving fish fillet will only take 10 minutes or even less to defrost in warm water, and will take even less time to cook. However, as described in other answers, you cannot extend this method to larger cuts of meat like a massive t-bone steak or a giant chicken breast.

I use this method to defrost tilapia fillets and salmon fillets all of the time, but I am very careful to cook them after a few minutes of defrosting. I find that for thicker salmon fillets I only defrost it half way (about 5-10 minutes) and immediately throw it in the pan with the center still somewhat frozen. This prevents you from overcooking the fish, and still prevents you from keeping the fish in the danger zone too long.

If you would like to use this method on thicker cuts of meats, you can modify it where you use a Tupperware container full of cold water and place it in the fridge. It will defrost faster in the water than it will not placed in water, and the fridge will keep it out of the danger zone (of course this method takes longer).

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This in general can be unsafe, because the temperature of the warm water will be in the danger zone. That means that you'll be holding the surface of the food in the danger zone for the duration of the defrosting. Since you don't want to hold food in the danger zone for more than a couple hours, and that's cumulative over the whole process from fridge to eating, this additional time can easily take you from safe to unsafe.

If it's a really small piece like a thin filet it might only take 15 minutes, so it'd be fine, still easy not to go over two hours in the danger zone. If it's very big, though, it could start to be an issue. You can mitigate this some with warm running water or a circulator, but that only goes so far. And in either case you have to be very careful to keep track and make sure the defrosting is fast enough.

Cool running water, on the other hand, is a recommended method. It still works quite quickly, and if the food does enter the danger zone it's at least on the low end of it, so it's not quite so risky.

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    cool running water out of indoor plumbing is an obscenely wasteful way to accomplish this. – amphibient Mar 31 '15 at 22:02
  • @amphibient And warm water is any less wasteful? – logophobe Mar 31 '15 at 22:24
  • i don't run it, i just fill a bowl and put a small packet of frozen fish in it while it's still in the ziplock... – amphibient Mar 31 '15 at 22:28
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    @amphibient Warm water in a bowl has safety issues, as described in my answer. Warm running water can definitely work but still requires some care (see the answer), so I also mentioned cool running water, since it is in some sense the closest safe alternative. I didn't say it was a good use of water, just that it was safe. That said, you could potentially use a circulator to get the same effect while using much less water. – Cascabel Mar 31 '15 at 22:44
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I wanted to add a new answer here that the USDA did a study in 2011 about warming meats in warm/hot water. The article sums it up well but in short:

At the U.S.D.A. labs in Beltsville, Md., Janet S. Eastridge and Brian C. Bowker test-thawed more than 200 one-inch-thick beef strip loin steaks in three different groups: some in a refrigerator at 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, some in a constantly circulating water bath at 68 degrees, and some in a water bath at 102 degrees.

Air-thawing in the refrigerator took 18 to 20 hours, while the room-temperature water bath thawed the steaks in about 20 minutes, and the hot-summer-day bath in 11 minutes. These water-bath times are so short that any bacterial growth would remain within safe limits.

...

So there’s no downside to quick-thawing steaks, chops, fillets and other relatively thin cuts in warm water right before cooking. Large roasts are a different story. They take long enough to thaw that there may be time for significant bacterial growth on their surfaces. Prompt cooking might well eliminate that problem, but until this has been studied, it’s safest to continue thawing roasts in the refrigerator or in water under 40 degrees.

Sources:

A Hot-Water Bath for Thawing Meats

Effect of Rapid Thawing on the Meat Quality Attributes of USDA Select Beef Strip Loin Steaks)

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The official answer is it's unsafe, and if you forget you food it can be.

However, I defrost like this all the time. The trick is to be quick about it. Chicken can be put right in the water directly, and you can massage the frozen parts apart as the heat melts the cracks.

The difference between frozen and safe zone thawed is only a few degrees. Once the pieces have been separated, you can start cooking. It will take longer for the heat to reach the center and the outer rings will be more well done, but you have a meat thermometer right? Use it to make sure the center has been cooked properly.

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