Having frozen ribs on hand is convenient unless you forget to take them out of the freezer in time for dinner. Sometimes, the fastest way to thaw ribs may not be the safest. It's important to consider proper food handling practices to prevent foodborne illness.
Thawing Ribs at Room Temperature
All perishable foods, including meat, should not be left on the counter to thaw at room temperature, even if you put the ribs in hot water, warns the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS). Ribs should not be left at room temperature for longer than two hours.
Even if the center of the package still feels frozen, as it thaws on the counter the outer layer, it can reach the "danger zone" — a temperature between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the range of temperature that allows bacteria to multiply rapidly.
When you freeze meat, bacteria are kept in a dormant stage. Once thawed, these microbes become active again.
The USDA FSIS warns that meat left at an improper temperature is prone to the growth of pathogens, such as staphylococcus, salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter. These bacteria grow at the same rate on defrosting food as they would on fresh food not maintained at a temperature lower than 40 F.
Spoilage bacteria will manifest itself with an uncharacteristic odor, color, or feel (such as becoming sticky or slimy). Molds may also grow and become visible, says the USDA FSIS.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, foodborne bacteria may cause illness within 20 minutes or even up to six weeks after eating contaminated food. Symptoms of foodborne illness may include gastrointestinal discomfort, such as vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain — in addition to flu-like symptoms like fever, headache and body aches.
Raw and processed meat was a primary source of bacteria, particularly E. coli, in a November 2015 study published in the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences. Researchers analyzed 370 samples of raw meat to assess the relationship between pathogenic bacteria and foodborne illnesses.
Defrost Ribs in the Refrigerator
Planning ahead is the key to thawing ribs safely. A package of frozen ribs may take up to a full day to thaw, states the USDA FSIS. You should take into consideration the temperature of your refrigerator — food will take longer to thaw at 35 F than at 40 F.
When defrosting ribs, make sure you put the meat in a container that will catch any drippings as it thaws. Raw juices from meat can contaminate other food items in your fridge, including fruits and vegetables. As a rule of thumb, never defrost the ribs or other meats at room temperature.
Once defrosted in the refrigerator, beef or pork ribs should remain safe for an additional three to five days, notes the USDA FSIS. If you change your mind and decide that ribs won't be on the menu, it's safe to refreeze them without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.
Read more: Are Pork Baby Back Ribs Bad for You?
Defrost Ribs in the Microwave
Defrosting your ribs in the microwave can help jump-start meal preparation and reduce cooking time. This method is the fastest way to thaw ribs, but you still need to adhere to some safety rules.
After taking the ribs from the freezer, remove all store packaging, including plastic wrap and foam trays. Most types of packaging are not heat resistant, states Michigan State University Extension (MSU Extension). The plastic wrapping could melt and cause harmful chemicals to leak into the meat.
Place the frozen ribs into a microwave-safe container and cover them loosely. Microwave ovens generally have a defrost feature, but if yours doesn't, set the power to 30 percent, according to MSU Extension.
Defrosting typically takes seven to eight minutes per pound, depending on the power of the microwave and the thickness of the ribs. If your microwave doesn't automatically rotate food, you should turn the container halfway through the thawing process. As the ribs defrost, the edges may slightly cook. However, the inside of the food may remain frozen.
Uneven thawing is a safety concern, especially if the food reaches the 40 F mark where bacteria begin to grow and multiply. For this reason, you should cook microwave defrosted food immediately. It is not safe to thaw ribs in the microwave and then put them in the refrigerator to cook later.
Read more: Roasted Watermelon Pork Ribs
Defrost Ribs in Cold Water
If you're only defrosting a single serving or small portion of ribs, the cold water method is an option. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends putting the frozen ribs in a sealed plastic bag or leak-proof container that will prevent air and water from touching the food.
Submerge the packaged ribs in a large bowl of cold tap water. If your tap water does not feel cold enough, add ice cubes to bring down the temperature. Every 30 minutes, drain the water and replace it with fresh cold water.
The USDA states that small packages of meat may thaw in an hour or less, while a 3- or a 4-pound package may take two to three hours. Unlike meat thawed in the refrigerator, meat products thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately and not refrozen.
Read more: How to Cook the Most Tender Short Ribs Ever
If you don't have time to adequately thaw the meat, cooking frozen ribs in the oven can be an option. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises that longer cooking times will be required — about one and a half times the usual cooking time.
Always make sure the ribs are cooked thoroughly to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F as confirmed with a meat thermometer, recommends the USDA FSIS. Allow the meat to rest for at least three minutes before serving it.
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: "The Big Thaw - Safe Defrosting Methods - for Consumers"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Safe Food Handling"
- Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences: "Molecular Characterization of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Recovered From Meat and Meat Products Relevant to Human Health in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia"
- Michigan State University Extension: "Safe Microwave Defrosting"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How to Safely Defrost (Thaw) Food"
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: "How Temperatures Affect Food"
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: "Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart"