This could save the picnic.

bahadir-yeniceri/Getty Images

As a child learning to cook, you were filled with questions: Sugar or no sugar in the cornbread? How to release the cake from the pan without tearing it? How to keep fried chicken from getting soggy? But you probably never asked how to safely thaw ground beef because, quite frankly, there didn’t seem to be a question. Your mom always tossed the frozen package of meat on the countertop in the morning, and by evening it was thawed out enough to cook. Thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture, we are now acutely aware that thawing any raw meat at room temperature can promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Here are three safe and quick methods to thaw frozen ground beef.

Meat Safety 101

First, let’s cover some basic food safety issues. When shopping for raw ground beef to make juicy hamburgers for the weekend cookout, choose a package that is tightly wrapped – the plastic should not be loose or torn, or wet. If possible, place the package inside another plastic bag so any leaking juices won’t drip onto your other groceries. Keep the raw meats separate from ready-cooked items (who can resist a box of hot, Publix fried chicken?) in the buggy.

Refrigerate or freeze ground beef as soon as you get it home. You can keep it in the original packaging if you plan to cook the meat soon. If refrigerated, use the meat within 1 to 2 days. Need to freeze for longer storage? Remove the raw meat from the original packaging and place in freezer zip-top bags. Before sealing the bag, use a rolling pin to gently flatten the meat (do not roll back and forth) to about ½-inch thickness. Seal the bag, mark the bag with contents, amount, and freezer date, then transfer to the freezer. You will be glad you flattened the meat when it comes time to thaw it out, because the ½-inch piece will thaw much quicker than the large mass of meat you brought home. Flattening the meat with a rolling pin also helps to press out any excess air in the bag, hopefully preventing freezer burn or dehydration.

Three Ways to Defrost Ground Beef

Thaw in the refrigerator. Put the zip-top bag with the frozen meat in the refrigerator. It’s best to place the meat on a plate so any condensation from the bag won’t drip all over other items. When using this method, cook thawed meat within 1 to 2 days.

Thaw in the microwave. Put the zip-top bag with the frozen ground beef on a plate in the microwave and, Using the defrost setting, start defrosting for 3 to 4 minutes, flipping the bag over halfway through. Keep an eye on the meat; microwave wattages vary and these times are merely a guideline. Some of the ground beef may have started cooking during the defrosting process so go ahead and cook the meat immediately.

WATCH: The Best Way To Make a Hamburger

Thaw in cool water. Set the zip-top bag with the frozen meat in a sink or large bowl, cover with cold water, and weigh the package of meat down with something heavy, like a skillet or big platter. You want to keep the meat submerged in the cold water. The meat should thaw in less than 15 minutes; cook immediately.