Neither of these situations are safe, and these methods of thawing lead to food borne illness. Food must be kept at a safe temperature during "the big thaw." Foods are safe indefinitely while frozen. However, as soon as food begins to defrost and become warmer than 40 ºF, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply.
"Foods should never be thawed or even stored on the counter, or defrosted in hot water. Food left above 40 ºF (unrefrigerated) is not at a safe temperature," cautions Bessie Berry, manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline.
Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food is in the "Danger Zone," between 40 and 140 ºF – at temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.
"When defrosting frozen foods, it's best to plan ahead and thaw food in the refrigerator where food will remain at a safe, constant temperature -- 40 ºF or below," recommends Berry.
There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.
Planning ahead is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved. A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every 5 pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food -- such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts -- require a full day to thaw. When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are several variables to take into account.
After thawing in the refrigerator, ground meat and poultry should remain useable for an additional day or two before cooking; red meat, 3 to 5 days. Foods defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.
Cold Water Thawing
This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. 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 also 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 so 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. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.
When microwave defrosting food, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwave defrosting. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and, indeed, may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.
Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked