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During the 'good old days' our grandparents often remind us of, refrigeration as we know it was a luxury few could afford. Most consumers had to settle for the Legendary 'Ice Box', a messy and cumbersome affair that didn't always deliver on its promises. If a family wanted fresh meat for the dinner table, it had to be purchased from a butcher and prepared that day or else face complete ruin. As electric refrigerators and freezers became more commonplace, the food industry discovered that it could now ship products in a frozen state without fear of spoilage. Consumers soon learned that they could buy fresh items on Monday and serve them on Friday if they were frozen properly. Complete meals could be packaged and frozen, then reheated whenever the consumer cared to eat them. There can be no doubt that the ability to buy frozen foods has become a boon for consumers who want the healthy qualities of fresh food combined with the convenience of frozen.

But do we really understand the process of freezing and thawing our favorite foods? A few simple errors in judgement can turn a promising meal into a contaminated mess without even realizing the danger. Here are some tips on how to properly thaw the most common frozen food items.

1. Hamburger. Perhaps no other meat has the honor of being frozen more often than ground beef. Consumers know a bargain, and quite often the best deal going with meat is bulk packages of ground beef. The problem with buying in bulk, however, becomes apparent with storage. A solution? Repackage your hamburger meat into smaller portions, approximately one pound or so, while it is still fresh. Wrap these portions securely in plastic wrap, and mark the date of purchase somewhere on the packages. This will aid the thawing process tremendously. On the day you wish to use the hamburger, pull out only the amount of meat you need, starting with the oldest packages. The best way to thaw hamburger meat is by placing it in the refrigerator, still tightly wrapped, and allowing it to thaw gradually. This does involve some pre-planning on your part. If you discover that you need some ground beef a few hours before dinner, you'll have to speed up the process somewhat, but don't get ahead of yourself.

Ground beef can easily be thawed in a microwave oven, but this method will require some diligence. Place the ground beef package into the microwave oven, and use the defrost setting. Since microwaves vary in power, you'll have to estimate the total time needed to fully thaw your meat. What you need to avoid is partial cooking of the meat that thaws the fastest. Check on your meat from time to time, and carefully scrape off any thawed sections of meat while they are still red. If you are planning on crumbling the meat anyway, you can allow for more 'pre-cooking', but you don't want the meat to cook if you are planning to make hamburger patties.

As a last resort, you can run cold, NOT HOT, water over the unopened package in order to hasten the thawing process. NEVER leave the package in an opened state at room temperature to thaw. Even if the package is sealed, room temperature is still an ideal breeding situation for many nasty bacteria and other contaminants. With hamburger, it is either thawed or frozen, no in-betweens for any longer than necessary.

2. Chicken. To tell you the honest truth, handling raw chicken is one of the trickiest situations for any cook. In order to safely prepare chicken from a raw state, you must maintain separate cutting boards and utensils and be extra vigilant concerning thawing and handling. Disturbing as it may sound, raw chicken is a perfect medium for the dreaded Salmonella, so I cannot emphasize proper thawing and handling procedure enough.

To properly thaw chicken from frozen, you should again use the refrigerator if at all possible. Take out the frozen poultry the night before and place it on a tray in the refrigerator, making sure that no juices from the thawing chicken will reach any other food items. If you do notice some chicken juices on other products, remove them immediately and wash them as you have never washed before, or throw them out completely. Cross-contamination is a real possibility, and is one of the main concerns for health inspectors in commercial kitchens. Once the chicken has thawed completely, place it on a clean surface for preparation. If you are rushed for time, chicken can be thawed in a bath of cool water, as long as you change the water frequently and clean the sink thoroughly. Chicken can also be thawed in a microwave, but it is not a recommended procedure. Use an extremely low power setting, and be sure to clean and disinfect any interior surface the chicken may come in contact with.

3. Fruits and vegetables. Popular as side dishes, many frozen vegetables are also quite easy to thaw and prepare. For the most part, vegetables can be prepared in their frozen state, so no thawing is necessary. Check your label to make sure, but most packages of flash-frozen vegetables should NOT be thawed out until cooked, to insure freshness. Fruits, on the other hand, almost always need to be thawed out before serving. Again, the easiest method is the slow but reliable thaw in the refrigerator, but if you should find yourself in need of a faster thaw, frozen fruits can be quickly thawed under a stream of cold water in the sink. But chances are, your fruit will still be a bit frozen in the middle for a good while, so you may be better off selecting fresh fruits for an immediate meal and saving the frozen fruits for drink recipes and fruit salads.

4. Seafood. After chicken, seafood is the second most difficult meat to thaw properly. Seafood restaurants keep careful records of temperatures all the way through the thawing and preparation stages, because seafood is also prone to contamination if not handled properly.

The best way to thaw frozen raw seafood is similar to thawing a turkey. Keep the fish wrapped in its original packaging and allow it to thaw naturally in the refrigerator for several hours. Fish is a very delicate food, and quick thawing may cause more harm than good. If you must thaw fish quickly, use a very clean sink with good drainage.

Take the frozen seafood out of the packaging and place it in the sink. Run a steady stream of cold water over the fish, and do not allow the water to pool up. Continue to run water over the fish until it is completely thawed. Place the fish in a strainer to remove extra moisture, and then place the entire batch into a bed of ice until you are ready to prepare it.