The Safest Way to Defrost, Cook and Store Any Kind of Meat

No matter what meat you want to eat, here's how to ensure safety every step of the way.

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May 22, 2020

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Meat is a food that can potentially carry foodborne illness; however, proper handling and cooking can help keep you and your family safe. Here are simple tips to safely handle and cook meat.

How to Store Meat Before Cooking

The most common meats Americans bring home include beef, pork, veal and lamb. Chicken and turkey are categorized as poultry and are handled similarly. Once you bring your meat or poultry through your door, it should be stored immediately. If you’re going to cook it within a few days, then store it in the refrigerator in a container to catch any juices that may drip. If you’re going to be using it later than that, store it in the freezer. If you plan on storing meats in the freezer for more than two weeks, then remove the meat from its original packaging and wrap in heavy-duty aluminum foil or in plastic freezer bags, removing as much air as possible. Think about pre-portioning out the amounts you will need before placing your meat in the freezer.

How to Defrost Meat

Once you’re ready to use your meat that’s been stashed in the freezer, there are several safe ways to defrost it. It's not recommended to leave it on the counter to defrost, as that provides bacteria with a perfect environment to multiply. Instead, place meat in the refrigerator the night before on a plate or tray to catch any juices. You can also place it in the microwave to thaw, but cook it up immediately after since the microwave unevenly distributes heat, so some of the meat may be partially cooked. A third defrosting method is to run the meat under cold running water until thawed.


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How to Prep Meat

Before starting to prepare your meat, wash your hands with soap and water. Lather for at least 20 seconds, rinse, and dry with a clean towel or disposable paper towel. Place raw meat on a plastic cutting board as wood can harbor bacteria and is tougher to clean. Plastic or synthetic boards can be run through the dishwasher.

When preparing meat avoid cross-contamination, which is the movement of bacteria from one surface to another. This means to prep on a clean work surface with a clean cutting board and clean knife. Don’t use the same utensils, plates and cookware for raw and cooked meat in order to prevent cross-contamination. Also, never leave the meat on the counter for a long period of time — make sure you have the time you need to prep it — and if you have to run out, cover and place it in the refrigerator until you return.

Rinsing meat is not recommended according to the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines as the water can splash and lead to contamination of your sink and counters.

If you’re marinating the meat, place it in a container, cover and marinate in the refrigerator.

How to Cook Meat to Temperature

Once you’re ready to cook your meat, have your thermometer ready to go! The best way to tell if meat is cooked is by checking the proper internal cooking temperature. You can purchase a food thermometer for about $10. (Some meat thermometers cost more and have built in cooking temperatures.) According to the USDA’s Food Service and Inspection Services (FSIS), minimum internal cooking temperatures for meat are:

  • Beef, Pork, Lamb, and Veal: Steaks, chops and roasts should be cooking to 145 F as measured with a food thermometer before removing the meat from the heat source.
  • Ground Meat: Research indicates that the color of the meat and color of the juices is not an indicator of doneness, so make sure to use your thermometer to check that it reaches a minimum internal cooking temperature of 160 F.
  • Poultry: Whole chicken and turkey, and ground chicken and turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F.

If you marinated your meat, make sure to toss the leftover marinade

How to Store Leftovers and Reheat Them

Leftover meat should be stored within two hours or one hour if the temperature is 90 F (like at an outdoor picnic). Leftover meat should be wrapped or stored in airtight containers and refrigerated. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), leftover meat should be eaten within three to four days.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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