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Thawing Frozen Food in a Steam Oven

Discussion of thawing frozen food in a steam oven feels pretty mundane, but thawing or defrosting is a crucial step in food preparation. Correct thawing can significantly impact taste, texture, and food safety. 

Conventional methods like countertop thawing, fridge thawing or using a microwave are still prevalent. But your steam oven offers a great alternative in many instances, providing a quick and even thaw to many foods.

Read on for my tips on getting the most from thawing frozen food in a steam oven. And download the chart if you want specific directions for different types of foods. 

Why use your steam oven to thaw food?

Unlike conventional methods that may result in slow or uneven thawing, steam ovens utilize moisture and heat to defrost evenly.

It’s not as fast as a microwave, but the steam oven is much faster than countertop or fridge thawing methods. The moisture in the oven transfers heat to the food quickly, speeding up the thawing process without sacrificing quality. You’ll transition from freezer to table in less time, without the rubbery hotspots that foods get from microwave defrosting. 

What types of food can be safely thawed in a steam oven

From meats and poultry to vegetables and baked goods, nearly any frozen food can be thawed in your steam oven. You just need to follow the correct temperature and food safety guidelines.

Meats and poultry, if frozen in flatter, thinner forms can safely handle steam oven thawing if cooked immediately afterwards. Large joints of meat with uneven surfaces and lumpy or round shapes should not be thawed in your steam oven. 

Delicate items like fish and seafood also fare well for steam oven thawing. The gentle heat and humidity ensures they thaw evenly without losing their delicate texture. Again, cooking immediately after thawing is key for safety.

Baked goods, such as bread, cakes and pastries can be safely thawed in a steam oven. You can then move on to reheating, using combi steam settings to give a freshly baked texture and taste. 

Finally, although it’s not something I do (mainly because I don’t like the texture of the thawed products), you can thaw frozen fruits and vegetables safely in a steam oven. Thaw these products using the same settings and similar times as you would for animal proteins. 

Food safety when thawing frozen food in a steam oven

Safety is paramount when it comes to handling and preparing food. Thawing food at improper temperatures or using methods that encourage bacterial growth can pose serious health risks. No one wants food poisoning from their dinner.

For this reason, some foods are not recommended for steam oven thawing. Large joints of meat, whole poultry and animal proteins which have been frozen in ‘lumps’ rather than a thinner layer. 

While a steam oven offers fast and efficient thawing, when you’re dealing with larger meat items, the outer parts of the food spend too long in the temperature ‘danger zone’ (40°F/4°C-140°F/60°C) while the middle is defrosting. Those foods are best thawed overnight in the fridge, to maintain a safe temperature and reduce the risk of pathogens.

You’ll see I give temperatures and times for thawing other meat products in my chart. Make sure you follow the guidelines for these, so your food thaws evenly and quickly. And remember you must cook it immediately after thawing. Don’t ever thaw meat products in your steam oven and then put them back in the fridge for cooking later

How to prepare foods for freezing and thawing

A little planning when you freeze your food makes steam oven thawing much easier and safer. This is definitely a case of ‘do a little work now and be rewarded later’.

The short version of how to prep for freezing and thawing is this: freeze your food in thin layers or small portions for the best thawing results. I have my own system for this, outlined below if you’d like the more detailed version!

The first part of my planning for freezer foods is about equipment. By no means do you have to go to this extent, but I bought an Anova chamber vacuum sealer a couple of years ago and it has been a GREAT investment. If you’re interested in trying a vacuum sealer but don’t want to go to that level, Anova has three other vac sealers in their range at various price points. At the time of writing, their little portable hand-held sealer is on super sale at $18 USD, which is a bargain I’m tempted to make use of so I can have a sealer in my studio kitchen!

As well as being useful for sous vide cooking and quick pickling, my sealer gets a workout for freezer meals and bulk meat purchases (I have three hungry boy children and one hungry husband, so bulk meat buying and cooking is a big part of this season of life).

Something I love about freezing vacuum sealed foods is that I can go straight from freezer to steam oven without removing the food from the bag to thaw. If you have food in lidded containers, or meat in supermarket packaging with plastic film over a deep tray, you need to remove it from the package to get the most efficient heat transfer when thawing.

Prepping fresh meat for freezing and thawing

When I buy fresh meat or poultry, I break it down into meal-sized portions and vacuum seal it, making sure everything is sealed in a single layer, and that ground meat is flattened into a ‘block’ no more than an inch or so thick. Straight into the freezer, and then I know that meat is never more than an hour away from being ready to cook, because I can give it a spin in the steam oven to thaw while I prep the other elements of the meal. 

Prepping cooked meals for freezing and thawing

Casseroles, soups, pasta sauce, chili and pulled meats all get vacuum sealed just as fresh meat does. This is where the chamber sealer really comes into play for me, because it effortlessly seals liquids as well as solids (non-chamber vacuum sealers don’t deal with liquids very effectively).

You can also freeze portions of cooked foods in shallow containers. Remove the lid before thawing, or pop the frozen food out of the container and into a stainless steel tray so you can move straight to reheating after thawing.

Prepping baked goods for freezing and thawing

Not too much required in this case! Freeze your baked goods in the original packaging, or if they’re home made, freeze as you normally would in an airtight container or wrapped in cling film. Remove them from the packaging for thawing and proceed.

Don’t want a vacuum sealer, or worried about lots of single-use plastic? I get it. I’m almost always freezing large portions of food for a family, and we don’t use much other plastic in the kitchen, so I’m comfortable with the trade-off for efficiency at this point in my life. If you’re willing to wash them well, try reusable vacuum bags, or silicone ‘stasher’ bags for a similar outcome without a vacuum sealer. Plain old zip-lock resealable bags work really well for freezing foods in this manner as well. 

What temperature should you use for thawing frozen food in a steam oven?

Temperature control is key to ensuring safe thawing. 

The aim is to strike a balance between thawing your food as quickly as possible, while maintaining safe food temperatures in the process. This is a little dependent on the type of food you want to defrost (meat/chicken/fish vs ‘safer’ foods like bread and cakes), and a lot dependent on the form it takes (thin, even layers of frozen food – good – vs big lumps of frozen food – not good).

For animal proteins and pre-cooked meals, I thaw at or around 86°F/30°C, to get that balance. And, as mentioned above, I cook the food immediately after thawing so it doesn’t sit in the temperature danger zone any longer than necessary. 

For baked items like breads and cakes, I go for a higher temperature because the food can handle it, and there isn’t the same risk of bacterial growth. Something around 122°F/50°C-140°F/60°C is suitable here. 

Preset programs for thawing frozen food in a steam oven

Most steam ovens offer preset thawing programs or allow users to set specific temperatures suited to the type of food being thawed. 

The preset programs attempt to simplify the process and they can be really handy, but they can’t take every detail of your food into account. 

If you’re following your oven’s presets, make sure you check your user manual for guidelines on what form the food should be in before placing it into the oven. 

And that completes today’s lesson, people! Make sure you download the chart for my recommended times and temps for thawing frozen food in a steam oven, and enjoy the benefits of better and faster defrosting next time you realize you’ve forgotten to take something out for dinner. 

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