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Posted on Jun 16, 2008 | 32 comments

Speed tip: Frypan defrosting

Speed tip: Frypan defrosting

If you’ve forgotten to take something out of the freezer and want to get cooking in a hurry, there are a few methods of thawing food that are faster than putting it in the refrigerator. Of course there’s the microwave oven (Defrost setting), but this can create hot spots that start cooking the food unevenly. Another way is to put the food in a freezer bag, squeeze out excess air, and immerse in a bowl of cool water under a tiny trickle of water to create convection currents that speed up defrosting (discussed in my popular tip for freezing ground food in usable quantities). I found a third technique in my Japanese freezing books, though. (Read on for details of the frying pan defrosting trick.)

Speedy defrosting in a heavy pan

The third technique is one that I’ve run across in my Japanese-language freezing books, which works according to the same principles as the Super D Frost Wonder board. Line a heavy room-temperature frying pan with aluminum foil, put the frozen food right on top (wrapped or unwrapped), put the pan on a rack or the stovetop (turned off) and let it defrost quickly at room temperature, turning the food over once. Heavy frying pans such as the All Clad saute pan pictured here are designed to conduct heat efficiently, and do double duty to quickly defrost food. The aluminum foil keeps the frying pan clean and catches any drips, while also helping to conduct heat. Press down on the food after turning it over to ensure that the maximum surface area is touching the pan.

Defrosting this way is much quicker than letting food defrost in the refrigerator, although you can put a lid on the frypan and stash the whole thing in the refrigerator if you’re called away (I did this today when I went to pick up my son from preschool). I kept a lid on during thawing to keep our curious cats away. For best food safety, though, it’s best to avoid room temperate defrosting during hot summer months or if you’ve got the heat cranked up in the winter.

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32 Comments

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  1. So, do you actually get the pan hot and then line it/add the frozen food? Or.. I don’t get how it’s helping if the pan isn’t hot! :( That is a great tip, though!

  2. @1 from Alicia: No, you use a room temperature pan. With heavier pans, the aluminum at the core (or the cast iron) helps transfer heat much faster than regular defrosting. This is the same principle as those magic defrosting boards that used to be advertised on TV. (I edited the post to clarify, thanks!)

  3. Ah, alright thanks for the clarification. This is actually a really good idea for my family, since we freeze all of our meat. Although I don’t think we have a heavy pan like that, all ours are cheap. At least I know what to buy us for the next holiday! Lol.

  4. Sorry to be utterly pedantic here, but the pan isn’t conducting cold away from the food – that’s physically impossible. Heat energy, in the form of the kinetic energy (movement, for want of a better word) particles in the pan is being transferred to the foil and then the food through collisions between the molecules. In other words, heat energy is moving from hot to cold, causing the pan to cool down and the food to heat up – exactly the same thing that happens when you heat the pan to cook food, only at a lower temperature.

    This will continue until the pan and the food reach thermal equilibrium (are the same temperature), which would also be room temperature.

    I don’t doubt that this technique works, just that cold exists in some form that can be removed. Only heat energy (the kinetic energy of particles) exists here – something cold simply has less of this energy.

    Again, sorry for being so pedantic. I have a physics exam today and I just couldn’t let it slide. :p Love your site. You and Nigella are pretty much the only reason I haven’t starved to death already.

  5. Another draw back is the use of aluminium foil and food. The contact of food and aluminium is not recommended as aluminium transfers not only a metallic taste but particles of aluminium, which are toxic for health (Alzheimer’s disease). I know that it depends on the intake of aluminium, but somehow avoiding to use aluminium pans and aluminium foil, don’t do much harm.

  6. @ Martha Rose: Wow, I learned something this morning! I feel smarter already. ^_^

    This is a great thing, though – I will definitely have to try it out!

  7. Ooh, that’s a great tip! I’ll have to try it out.

  8. Haha I’ve wondered about this for a while… my mom has a grill pan that claims to also work as a defrosting board and I asked her once how it works, she said “I don’t know” but she said it works great. Same concept :)

  9. @4 from Martha Rose: No worries about your being pedantic; I was being colloquial in my description. You’re correct, of course: there is a transfer of heat energy. The frying pan method works quickly, though, and saves people money who were thinking of buying yet another unitasking kitchen gadget.

  10. Being a fan of you for a long time. Thanks for the great tip. Just out of curiosity, how long did it take for the chicken to thaw?

    Thanks!

  11. @5 from Zoé: I ran this past my husband, who is a health & biotech journalist, and he says that the theory of dietary aluminum as a cause of Alzheimer’s disease has not been proven in reliable studies, and that current research points to other causes. If you’re not comfortable with using aluminum foil in cooking, by all means avoid it, but remember also that heavy duty pans such as the All Clad saute pan pictured above only have aluminum sandwiched in the core of the pan for heat conductivity, and the pan surface that comes into contact with the food is stainless steel. You could put the meat directly on the frying pan for the same effect without using foil.

  12. @8 from Yvo: That would make sense that a grill pan would tout its ability to defrost, as many of them are made out of heavy cast iron. You might not get as much contact with the pan if there are those raised grilling bars, though. Maybe turn the grill pan over and use the flat bottom?

  13. @10 from Mai: This was a pretty thick hunk of chicken thighs (the packs from Costco), so I’d say they were thawed in about an hour+. I didn’t time it exactly, though — your results may vary.

  14. Just make sure the food isn’t acidic, like a frozen brick of tomato sauce, especially if you’re going to “stash it” until later – the two metals will create a battery and produce acid.

  15. ah! I gotta try this sometime with my cast iron skillet ^^ gotta get some aluminum foil first tho lol

  16. @11 from Biggie: I’ve also looked into the aluminum/Alzheimer’s issue, and agree with your husband- there is no good evidence to support the theory that aluminum is a cause- aluminum in the brain is a by-product of the disease, not a cause.

    I also like aluminum because in my area it’s recyclable, whereas plastic isn’t. I’d rather pack my freezable food in aluminum, then drop it in the recycle bin when it’s too worn to use again.

    Cookie sheets work great for thawing too!

  17. I’ll be trying this tonight, thanks 8^)

  18. The smartest food blog on the Internet!

  19. @14 from Monica: Mmm, delicious battery acid! ;-) Yech, thanks for the reminder about acidic foods.

  20. @16 from KittyPants: Good point about aluminum foil being recyclable here; I do toss it into the recycle bin once it’s officially dead.

    Agree that cookie sheets work for this too — small ones are also great for flash-freezing foods separately before you toss them into a freezer bag for easy access afterwards.

  21. @18 from Alison: Interesting about the possible link between gluten intolerance and Alzheimer’s — I’ll mention it to my husband. (After his celiac disease misdiagnosis a few years back and nine months of the GF diet, I KNOW he’ll be interested!)

    It does seem that there are hidden dietary dangers everywhere, doesn’t it? I guess we all need to determine our own comfort levels with the different risks and let it go at that.

  22. @23 from Biggie

    It’s certainly tough to figure out how to balance all the information (some of which is tough to find) with living in Real Life!

    Since Bug will be nearing school-age soon, you have probably already heard “he needs all his shots or he can’t go to school.”

    I am not anti-vaccine (at least,not yet), but just wanted to throw one piece of info out there for you: the second MMR shot (he got the first at around 18 months, if he followed the recommended schedule) IS NOT NECESSARY UNLESS HE FAILS A BLOOD TITRE (antibody test).

    The first shot is supposed to give life-time immunity. That second shot is mandated because 5% (yes, that’s 5%) of the kids who got the first shot didn’t mount an immune response. That means that 95% do have life-time immunity and don’t need the second shot.

    There are NO studies showing that those kids develop antibodies after the second shot.

    My information comes directly from the Merck website (Merck is the manufacturer of the MMR vaccine).

    Sorry for the detour from the original topic! We now return you to your regular programming.

  23. Is this different in any way to any other form of room temperature thawing (ie leaving it on a plate)?

  24. I learned this trick many years ago, but simply put the frozen item in the basin of a stainless steel sink — the principle is the same.

    It does work on other materials, with the efficiency dependent on their thermal conductivity.

  25. @26 from Metanoia: Yes, it’s different because it’s much faster than regular room temperature thawing on a plate (thanks to the conductivity of the frying pan).

  26. The directions on those defrost trays say that you should “condition” the tray by running hot water over it before using it too, so I would suppose that doing that would help speed things up if using a heavy pan.

  27. @25 from Alison: Thanks for the vaccine info, Alison. I’ll keep it in mind as we approach his second MMR shot. I forget exactly when that is, though… (Bad Mommy!) ;-)

  28. @29 from Lori: “Conditioning” the pan by running warm water over it first totally makes sense. Thanks for the tip!

  29. This works in reverse, too. When I’m finished baking a pie, I turn a large pot upside down and place the pie on it. This cools the pie off faster.

    These uses are kitchen examples of what’s called a “heat sink”.

    You can also defrost faster if you do it like I do with the pie and use your largest pot, turned upside down. Placing your frozen item inside an upright large pot won’t work as well because it will trap cold air.

  30. Add a desk fan to this setup for real defrosting magic. Simply leave the food still wrapped from the freezer and place on a cast-iron pan with the fan actively blowing on the pan. This make the heat transfer go twice as fast. (If our physics savvy friend wants to reword this so be it)

  31. Ooh, Nate that’s a great idea!
    I do leave the food wrapped from the freezer. Sadly, the likelyhood of the bag leaking seems to be directly related to how icky the ooze coming out of it is–chicken seems to be the worst :(
    For the water method, instead of running the tap at a trickle to quick-thaw stuff, which I hate because of the water waste(lived too many years in deserts ;) ) you can use a cheap submersible aquarium pump to circulate the water.