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Knowledge Base » Food Hygiene » Defrosting food in a microwave

Defrosting food in a microwave

According to the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF), “frozen foods have played an important role in the British home ever since the first frozen ready meal appeared on our plates in 1953”. It has become even more essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people froze food during shortages and self-isolation.

Freezing food is convenient, but not all can be cooked straight from frozen. Therefore, some foods will need defrosting before cooking. We all have busy lives, and there are times when you cannot wait for something to defrost in the refrigerator overnight. So what other options are there? Well, you can choose to defrost your food in cold water, or another option is to use a microwave, which is a far quicker and easier method.

When you use a microwave for defrosting, you must use it properly to ensure your food is safe to eat. If not thawed, it can cause harmful bacteria to grow. It can increase the risk of food poisoning, particularly with high-risk products, such as meat and fish. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), approximately 2.4 million foodborne illness cases occur every year in the UK.

This article will look at how to use a microwave to safely defrost food and defrosting certain types of food.

Food in a microwave

How to defrost food in the microwave

The majority of microwaves have a specific setting for defrosting (i.e. snowflake or snowflake with a water drop symbol) and may even have options for defrosting different types of food. Some have options to defrost by weight or time.

The microwave wattage is crucial for cooking and defrosting food, and it will be displayed on your appliance or in the manual. Most people have microwaves between 700W and 900W (watts), although they range from 600W to 1200W. The higher the wattage, the more quickly food will cook, which is not what you want when defrosting food. When you set your microwave to defrost or lower the power, it reduces the wattage.

When a microwave is set to defrost, the power is lower, i.e. between 30% and 50% (or below 350 watts). It alternates between microwaving and rest, and you may even notice your microwave sounds slightly different on this setting. It ensures that your food thaws all the way through and more evenly without overcooking the outside. If you defrost on high power, the outside of the food will start to cook but it will still be frozen inside, which is unsafe.

To safely defrost your food in the microwave, you should:

  • Check the packaging for instructions on how to defrost, if available.
  • Remove the packaging (unless stated otherwise), as the chemicals within can contaminate the food during thawing. It also prevents bacteria from the thawing liquid contaminating the food, particularly with meat.
  • Place the food in a microwavable container or dish and cover. If you are defrosting a liquid food, e.g. a soup, you will need a deep bowl.
  • Select the specific defrost setting for the food you want to defrost, if available. If you do not have a defrost setting on your appliance, set the microwave to 30-50% power.
  • Set your microwave to a lower power setting, e.g. 30-35%, if you want to defrost large food items, especially meat. For smaller loose items, e.g. vegetables, set at 45-50%.
  • Press start and defrost your food for 1-2 minute increments (or longer for larger pieces), checking it is defrosting evenly. The actual defrosting times will depend on your microwave, the type of food you are defrosting and its size.
  • Take the food out of the microwave and check it has fully defrosted, i.e. no ice crystals and the centre temperature is not freezing (using a temperature probe).
  • Always ensure your food has thoroughly defrosted before cooking. Why not access our article on how to defrost food safely for further precautions and additional methods of defrosting.
  • Clean the microwave after defrosting to prevent cross-contamination.

The manufacturer’s manual for your microwave may tell you how to defrost different foods, including the setting to use. Follow these instructions if there is no information about microwave defrosting on the packaging.

To ensure your food is safe and of good quality after defrosting in the microwave, it is essential to freeze it properly in the first place. See our article How long can you keep food in the freezer? for further information on freezing different types of food.

Can you defrost chicken in the microwave?

Yes, it is possible to defrost chicken in a microwave, but you must take extreme care when doing so, as it is a high-risk food item. It is better to use this method for defrosting smaller pieces of chicken, e.g. breasts, as opposed to whole birds.

To defrost your chicken in the microwave:

  • Remove the chicken from the freezer and its packaging.
  • Place a few pieces on a microwaveable plate (large and deep enough to capture any thawing liquid), ensuring they are not overlapping.
  • Select the specific defrost setting or set the power to 30%.
  • Defrost the chicken for 1-2 minutes (depending on the size), check and turn the pieces over. Continue this process until you are sure it has defrosted.
  • Remove from the microwave and cook immediately.

The chicken joints should be flexible and the meat soft and pliable. There should be no ice crystals present.

Defrosted chicken

Is it safe to defrost chicken in the microwave? 

Yes, it is safe to defrost chicken in the microwave if done correctly.

Never:

  • Defrost chicken on a high power setting, as it can defrost unevenly.
  • Leave it too long in the microwave, as it can start to cook.
  • Leave the chicken at room temperature after defrosting or refreeze, as it can encourage bacterial growth.
  • Put in the fridge or freezer after microwaving, as it can damage your appliance.

If you are using the microwave method for defrosting your chicken, make sure you cook your chicken immediately, as it limits the amount of time it is in the danger zone. Always serve your food piping hot throughout, and where possible, test the thickest part with a temperature probe.

Ensure you thoroughly wash your hands, utensils and surfaces after handling raw chicken to prevent cross-contamination.

It is always best to plan your meals properly and defrost your chicken in the refrigerator before cooking.

Chicken being cooked straight from defrosting

Can you defrost meat in the microwave?

Yes, you can defrost any type of meat (beef, lamb, pork, poultry and game) in the microwave, but be sure to always defrost on a low setting (20-30%). If you do not defrost meat properly, it can go into the danger zone (a temperature range optimal for bacterial growth), and you may end up with food poisoning.

To defrost meat in the microwave:

  • Take the meat out of the freezer.
  • Find out the weight of the meat by checking the original packaging or using weighing scales (if you are using the weight defrost setting).
  • Remove the meat from its packaging, as the majority will not be microwave-safe.
  • Place your meat in a microwaveable container/dish.
  • Set the microwave to defrost (enter the weight if applicable) or 20-30% power.
  • Defrost for 8-10 minutes (per 0.5kg).
  • Check the meat every 1½-2 minutes and turn it over.
  • Continue with this process until defrosted.
  • Cook straight away after defrosting.

It is better to use this method as a last resort and for smaller boneless pieces of meat. However, you can defrost boned pieces if needed. It is far safer to defrost it in the refrigerator. Always follow the instructions on the packaging.

Be sure to check your meat if it has been in the freezer for a long time. If there are signs of discolouration, freezer burn or an odour, you should discard it to be safe. Also, always take care when handling raw meat and ensure it is piping hot all the way through before serving.

Frozen meat in supermarket

Can you defrost sausages in the microwave?

Yes, you can defrost sausages in the microwave. You can even defrost some types in the original packaging, so always check that this is the case. If not, remove the sausages from the packaging and put them in a microwave-safe dish. If they are stuck together, do not worry; you can separate them more easily as they defrost. Choose the correct defrost setting or set it to 40-50%.

Microwave for 2-3 minutes or until you can separate them with a fork. Once separated, defrost for 2-minute intervals, check and turn them over. Carry on until thawed, and then cook straight away.

If you purchase fresh sausages (chilled) and then freeze them, they will need to defrost before cooking. You can buy some (meat and meat-free) that can be cooked straight from frozen in the oven, pan or grill. It will take longer to cook (20-25 minutes), but it may be an easier option. Always check the packaging instructions.

Sausages that have been defrosted in the microwave

Can you defrost burger meat in the microwave?

Yes, you can defrost burger meat and patties in the microwave, but it is still advisable to use the refrigerator method. You can also buy burgers to cook straight from frozen.

If you need to microwave-defrost your burgers, take them out of the freezer and put them separately on a microwave-safe plate to help them defrost quicker. Select the defrost option or set the microwave to 40-50%. The time needed will depend on the type of burger meat and the thickness. It is best to defrost them in 30-second increments, check, turn over and repeat until defrosted. It should take 3-5 minutes. Cook immediately in a pan on the hob or in the oven.

Frozen burgers ready to be defrosted

Can you defrost minced meat in the microwave?

Yes, you can defrost all types of minced meat (pork, beef, turkey, lamb and game) in the microwave, but it is advisable to defrost it in the refrigerator for 24 hours+. If you do need to microwave-defrost your mince, see below.

How to defrost mince in the microwave

If you need to defrost your mince quickly in the microwave, e.g. if you have forgotten to take it out the day before:

  • Remove the mince from the packaging and transfer it to a microwaveable container, dish or plate.
  • Set the microwave to the correct defrost setting or to 50% power.
  • Microwave for 2 minutes (unless you have a weight setting and the microwave will work the time out for you).
  • Take out the mince and check it by putting a spoon into the centre (it should go through the mince with ease if defrosted).
  • If not defrosted, continue microwaving the mince for 1-minute increments until defrosted.
  • Make sure the mince does not cook as you are defrosting.
  • Cook the mince straight away. Do not leave it out at room temperature.
Minced meat ready to be cooked

Can you defrost steak in the microwave?

Yes, you can, but it is not advisable if you want a tasty steak. Defrosting a steak in the microwave can make it tough and dry, as it removes the juices and changes the texture.

If you need to defrost your steak before cooking, it is best to use the refrigerator method. Not only is it the safest, but it will also ensure you will have a good quality tasty steak. If you are in a rush, you can use the cold-water method. See our article on defrosting food safely for details.

You do not always have to defrost your steak, and you can actually cook it from frozen in a pan and then the oven.

Steak

Can you defrost bacon in its packaging in the microwave?

No, you cannot defrost bacon in its original packaging in the microwave (unless expressly stated by the manufacturer). Bacon is usually in a plastic tray sealed with film. These types of plastics should not be heated, even on low power. Heating plastics that are not microwave-safe can contaminate the bacon with chemicals and the plastic can even melt.

If you want to defrost your bacon in the microwave, remove it from the packaging and transfer it to a microwaveable plate. Ensure the rashers are separated. Set the microwave to defrost or 30% power. Defrost for 1-minute bursts, check and turn over the rashers. Carry on with this process until thawed, which should take 3-5 minutes. Cook your bacon straight away in a pan, grill or oven.

Our article How long can you keep food in the freezer? has information on how to freeze bacon to make it easier to defrost.

Raw bacon ready to be grilled

Can you defrost pork in the microwave?

Yes, you can defrost pork in the microwave, but it is a riskier option due to uneven defrosting.

If your microwave has a defrost by weight option, you can select this or set it to 30% power.

For the best results, defrost your pork in the refrigerator until fully thawed and then cook thoroughly. Where possible, check your pork with a temperature probe to ensure it is piping hot and safe to eat.

Pork that's been defrosted in the microwave

Can you defrost fish in the microwave?

Yes, you can, but you should only use the microwave defrosting method as a last resort, as it is easy to overcook fish. It is also a high-risk food item.

If, for whatever reason, you need to defrost your fish in the microwave, take it out of the packaging and put it in a microwaveable dish. Cover with a microwave-safe paper towel or a suitable lid. Select the appropriate defrost setting or lowest power. Defrost the fish for a few minutes (checking every 30 seconds) and turn it over regularly. It should be pliable but not cooked. Always cook the fish straight away after defrosting.

The power and time needed to defrost will depend on the type of fish, its size/thickness and whether it is part of a dish.

If you need to defrost your fish, it is always advisable to defrost it in the refrigerator overnight or use the cold-water method. You can also purchase frozen fish fillets that you can cook straight from frozen, either in the microwave or oven. Always check the instructions on the packaging on whether you need to defrost your fish before cooking.

Frozen fish ready to be defrosted in the microwave

Can you defrost prawns in the microwave?

Yes and no. It is possible to defrost prawns in the microwave, but it is not the best method and should only be used for cooked prawns and never raw prawns. Only use the microwave method if the prawns are used in cooking and not for cold dishes.

To defrost cooked prawns in the microwave:

  • Take the number of prawns you need out of the freezer.
  • Put them in a microwaveable bowl filled with cold water and cover.
  • Set the microwave to the appropriate defrost setting or to 30% power.
  • Defrost for 15 seconds, wait for 30 seconds and then defrost for another 15 seconds.
  • Check the water is not getting hot.
  • Repeat the 15/30 second intervals until thawed, and be careful not to cook.
  • Once defrosted, cook immediately and ensure they are piping hot before serving.

Seafood carries a high risk of food poisoning, so it is essential to defrost prawns properly. Always follow the defrosting instructions on the packaging.

Microwave defrosting can make prawns chewy and hard. Where possible, defrost your prawns overnight in the refrigerator or use the cold-water method if you need them quickly.

Prawns that have been cooked after defrosting in the microwave

Can you defrost salmon in the microwave?

Yes, as with all fish, it is possible to defrost in the microwave, but it is not the best method, as mentioned. However, it is quicker than defrosting in a refrigerator. The fridge method can take up to 24 hours (depending on the salmon thickness). It usually takes 5-8 minutes to defrost salmon in the microwave. See, “Can you defrost fish in the microwave?” for the method.

Frozen salmon ready to be defrosted

Can you defrost bread in the microwave?

Yes, it is easy to defrost bread in the microwave. However, it can dry out or become soggy. If you defrost bread, it is often better to use this method if you plan to toast slices or use it in cooking, e.g. making breadcrumbs or bread and butter pudding. Although, you may still get a tasty sandwich if your bread defrosts correctly.

To defrost bread in the microwave:

  • Take out the portion/slices you need from the freezer.
  • If the slices are stuck together, carefully pry them open with a clean knife or fork.
  • Remove any excess ice if present.
  • Wrap the bread in a paper towel (that is safe to microwave) to remove excess moisture.
  • Put the slices onto a microwaveable plate.
  • Select the defrost setting (for bread if available) or set the microwave to 45-50% power.
  • Defrost for 15-second increments, check and turn the bread over. Continue until defrosted.

It is not recommended to refreeze defrosted bread, as it can make it hard and stale.

Bread can be defrosted

Can you defrost garlic bread in the microwave?

Yes, you can. However, you will need to be careful not to defrost on a high setting, as the garlic butter will melt. It can make a mess in your microwave, and you will lose some of the flavours. It is advisable to partially defrost your garlic bread in the microwave and finish it off in the oven. You can cook it in the microwave, but it will not be the same and can be hard and chewy.

If you want to defrost a whole garlic bread baguette, it is best to cut it into slices. Arrange them onto a microwaveable plate. Set the microwave to defrost or 50% and blast for 10 seconds. Check the bread, turn the slices over and continue to defrost until thawed, but do not melt the butter. Then cook in the oven for delicious crispy garlic bread.

Garlic bread

Can you defrost pasta in the microwave?

Yes, you can defrost pasta in the microwave. If you have leftover pasta and sauce, you should freeze separately, as it is easier to defrost in the microwave.

Transfer the pasta into a microwave-safe container, add a splash of water (to stop it sticking) and cover. Set the microwave to the defrost setting or 50%. Defrost and after 2 minutes, check the pasta and stir gently. Put the container back into the microwave and defrost for 1-minute bursts. Check whether it has thawed and, if not, repeat the 1-minute increments. Once defrosted, cook immediately.

Pasta can be defrosted in the microwave

Can you defrost milk in the microwave?

It is possible to defrost milk in the microwave, but it is not advisable, especially if you want it chilled, as it will heat up slightly whilst microwaving. It can also destroy the beneficial enzymes in the milk and encourage bacteria to grow (Holland and Barrett).

Where possible, dairy and plant-based milk should be safely defrosted in the refrigerator, although you can use the cold-water method if short of time. Be mindful that frozen milk can separate and change colour after defrosting. It will still be ok to use, but the texture will be slightly different. Shaking it will help, but you may want to consider using previously frozen milk in baking, cooking and smoothies.

It is not advisable to defrost milk in the microwave

Remember:

  • Always check the receptacle you are using for defrosting is microwave-safe and never use metal or certain plastics. If microwaveable, it will have a dish with wavy lines, just wavy lines or writing.
  • Never leave your food unattended when defrosting, as it will need to be checked and turned or stirred to ensure even cooking.
  • Always cook your food straight after defrosting.
  • Never refreeze raw food once defrosted, although some foods can be refrozen after cooking and chilling.
  • Where possible, defrost your food in the refrigerator until thawed fully, which is the safest option. It is also the option recommended by the Food Standards Agency.

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About the author

Michelle Putter

Michelle Putter

Michelle graduated with an MSc in wildlife biology and conservation in 2012, but her career has taken quite a different turn to the one expected. She started in health and safety in 2009 and has worked in several industries such as electrical engineering, aviation and manufacturing. She has been working with CPD Online College since 2018 and became NEBOSH Diploma qualified in 2020. In her spare time, Michelle's passions are wildlife and her garden. She has volunteered for many conservation organisations and particularly enjoys biological recording. Michelle also likes hiking, jogging and cycling.



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