A Practical Guide to Thawing and Reheating Food

How to get food from the freezer to the table in perfect shape.
A Practical Guide to Thawing and Reheating Food

Preparing and freezing healthy, delicious food is an excellent plan-ahead strategy for eating well when you're short on time. But once you're ready to pull that soup, stew or casserole out of the deep freeze, what's the best way to get it to the table in top form? Our hands-on guide will show you the best ways to thaw and reheat food.

Soups and Stews
Freezer life: 2 to 3 months
Microwave thawing: How high? How long?
Frozen soups and stews can be reheated on full power. A good rule of thumb is about 60 seconds per cup of frozen liquid, though it depends on how powerful your microwave is.

"Leave 'headroom' in the container when freezing, both to allow foods to expand while freezing, and to account for bubbling liquids during reheating," says Barbara Kafka, food authority and author of Microwave Gourmet (Morrow, 1998). Divide the reheating time in half or in thirds, stirring the food at intervals to assist in proper defrosting. Kafka suggests always placing a plate under containers to catch spills and minimize cleanup.
Stovetop thawing:
Keep the flame relatively low to avoid furiously bubbling liquid surrounding a rock-hard core.

Freeze in individual portions to reduce defrosting and reheating time.
Meat Loaves and Casseroles
Freezer life: 2 to 3 months
Microwave Thawing: How High? How Long?
Allow about 2 to 3 minutes per 6-ounce serving at 50 percent power, though it depends on how powerful your microwave is.
Fridge thawing: How long?
Typically, allow 1 1/2 to 2 days in the fridge.

Reheating from frozen:
Casseroles and meat loaves can be cooked or reheated from frozen. Allow approximately 1 1/2 to 2 times the usual cooking time.

  • If a dish has a bread- or cracker-crumb topping, leave it off when freezing (it'll become soggy). Add topping just before baking.

  • Casseroles containing mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream don't freeze well (these ingredients separate when frozen).

  • Other potential casserole/meatloaf ingredients that don't freeze well include hard-cooked egg whites (they get rubbery), cooked potatoes (they'll discolor) and raw tomatoes (they become mushy). It's best to add these items just before baking.
Uncooked Meats, Seafood, Fish and Poultry
Freezer life:
When properly packaged and frozen, uncooked meats, poultry, fish and seafood can go the distance. High-fat fish such as salmon and sea bass last 2 to 3 months, while lean fish keep their cool up to 6 months. Times for seafood vary, from 2 to 4 months for crab and clams to up to a year for shrimp and lobster.

Veal, pork and lamb roasts can be frozen up to 8 months, while beef steaks and roasts are good up to a year. However, all ground meats should be used within 3 to 4 months of freezing.
Plenty of time for thawing? Use the fridge.
To defrost, place packages on a plate to catch juices and defrost in the refrigerator. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ground beef, stew meats and steaks will defrost within 24 hours; allow up to 2 days for roasts and bone-in cuts.
Not Much time for thawing? Use cold water.
Defrost tightly wrapped packages of meat in a large bowl or container filled with cold water and set on the countertop or in the sink (best for neatness purposes; a bowl of water can slosh easily). Change water every half hour for best results and to ensure food safety. Small packages will defrost quickly; allow a few hours for larger cuts.
Microwave thawing? Don't bother.
Even on proper defrost settings, meats thaw inconsistently in the microwave. The FDA recommends cooking microwave-defrosted raw meats within a few minutes of defrosting, since the heat generated can encourage bacterial growth.
How long can thawed meats stay in the fridge before cooking?
If thawed in the fridge or by the "water method," meats can be kept in the refrigerator 2 to 3 days.
Freezer life: 8 to 12 months
After trimming, washing and drying thoroughly, most vegetables will last nearly a year in the freezer. However, vegetables with higher water content, such as zucchini, lose their cellular structure more quickly and should be used within 6 months.
Cooking with vegetables you've frozen yourself:
Treat them as you would frozen packaged vegetables. Since the cellular structure of vegetables changes when frozen, they should be cooked directly from their frozen state.
Sauces and Gravies
Freezer Life: 3-6 months
While foods with a high liquid content, such as spaghetti sauce, last up to 6 months in the freezer (3 to 4 months if they contain ground beef), gravies, with their relatively high fat content, don't freeze particularly well over long periods of time, and they tend to curdle and separate.

For best results:
Skim the fat from pan drippings, freeze the clarified liquid for up to 6 months, then defrost and make fresh gravy as needed.
Baked Goods
Freezer life: 1 to 6 months
Breads, pastries, muffins:
Can be frozen for about 1 to 2 months and will defrost, loosely covered, within a couple of hours at room temperature.
Cookies and bars:
Will last about 3 to 4 months in the freezer and can be defrosted, cover removed, on the countertop.
Cheesecakes and frosted cakes:
Sweet treats with a higher moisture content or containing dairy should be thawed in the refrigerator with the wrapping on, to prevent condensation. Defrosting desserts on a wire rack helps prevent underside condensation and encourages air flow.

A word about refreezing
Technically, foods that have been kept refrigerated after defrosting and reheating can be refrozen, as long as they've never entered the so-called "danger zone" between 40°F and 140°F, where food-borne illnesses can result. Even so, it's not recommended. Every drastic temperature change affects food quality. It's best to refrigerate, use up and start from scratch.


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