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Published January 27, 2012, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Use proper food-safety methods when thawing

As we drove through a neighborhood, my husband and I noticed an “open house” sign. We always find real estate hard to resist, so we stopped in to check it out.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

As we drove through a neighborhood, my husband and I noticed an “open house” sign. We always find real estate hard to resist, so we stopped in to check it out.

The day was fairly warm for January in North Dakota, and the ice was melting from the roof and water was running down the gutter in front of the doorstep.

The water formed a little skating rink on the cold sidewalk.

“This is a problem,” I said as I regained my balance after skating to the front door.

Once we were inside, we were impressed with the attention to detail in decorating and design. When we reached the kitchen, my husband pointed at the sink and whispered, “There’s another problem.”

After the freeze-thaw issue outside, I wasn’t expecting a food-safety problem.

My husband was referring to a pound of frozen ground beef thawing on the dish drainer in the sink.

Actually, we could count that as two mistakes. Room-temperature thawing is a major food-safety error. By setting the meat package on the dish drainer, they also were potentially contaminating the surface of the dish drainer with meat juices. The bacteria in the meat juices could leak from the package, contaminate the dish drainer and end up on the rims of their cups and glasses.

Although I was tempted, I resisted my impulse to open the cupboard door, pull out a pan and put the meat in the pan on a refrigerator shelf. The real estate agent may have removed me from the property at that point.

Meat is among the most perishable of foods. It is high in protein and moisture.

Bacteria that are present prior to freezing can grow quickly when they are exposed to warm temperatures.

I mentioned thawing meat in the refrigerator as one safe defrosting method. Can you name three ways to safely thaw frozen meat? Pause for a minute and think.

Did you think of thawing in a microwave or under cool water and cooking from the frozen state?

Although it takes a little planning, refrigerator thawing is an easy method.

Place your item in a container. Never place a package of frozen meat on a shelf immediately above ready-to-eat foods such as lettuce. You do not want to risk dripping meat juices on foods that will not be cooked.

If you are thawing a turkey or a large roast, you should allow about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of food. A pound of ground meat usually takes most of a day to thaw.

If you thaw meat in the refrigerator, you do not need to cook it immediately.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, refrigerator-thawed ground meat will remain safe and of good quality for two days, while red meat cuts (roasts, steaks and chops) will retain good quality for up to five days in a 40-degree refrigerator.

Food that is thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen safely, although you lose some quality. For example, the cooked product may be less juicy. Meat that is still partially frozen (as evidenced by ice crystals) usually results in a higher-quality end product after refreezing.

You can thaw packaged meat under cold water. Place the food in a leak-proof plastic bag, and be sure to change the water every 30 minutes. When defrosted this way, a pound of ground meat may thaw in about an hour. Larger packages may take about two to three hours to thaw.

If your plans suddenly change and you will not need to use the meat that you just thawed under cold water, remember this: Food that is thawed under cold water should be cooked prior to freezing. Be sure to package it in freezer wrap, freezer bags or containers in recipe-sized amounts.

You may have thought of microwaving as a defrosting method because most people have this appliance. Be sure to cook microwave-thawed food immediately. Many times, microwave-thawed food becomes warm or may even cook partially during the defrosting time.

Finally, you can safely cook food that is frozen, but remember that it will take at least 50 percent longer to cook the food.

If you have a package of frozen ground beef, you may want to thaw it and try this recipe. You will have homemade sauce in about 30 minutes. You can freeze the leftovers in meal-sized amounts for later use.


Homemade Meat Sauce

2 teaspoons salad oil (such as olive, canola or sunflower oil)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 large carrot, finely chopped

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 pound lean (90 percent or leaner) ground beef

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

½ teaspoon salt (optional)

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 pound whole-wheat spaghetti

Rinse and prepare vegetables as indicated. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery and then cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is beginning to brown, which should take five to eight minutes.

Stir in garlic and Italian seasoning; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add beef and cook, stirring and breaking up with a spoon until no longer pink. Drain excess fat. Increase heat to high. Stir in tomatoes and cook until thickened, four to six minutes. Stir in parsley if desired and salt. Keep warm. Cook pasta according to directions on the package. Drain. Serve the sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with cheese.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 389 calories, 9 grams of fat, 53 g of carbohydrate, 28 g of protein, 9 g of fiber, 416 milligrams of sodium and 709 mg of potassium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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