Perhaps you've seen those late-night TV commercials and infomercials selling thawing trays with such names as "Miracle Thaw."
The commercials promise boards that defrost meat in "minutes," without cooking the edges like a microwave does, using chemicals, or becoming hot to the touch. The "proof" is usually an ice cube placed on the tray that melts within seconds.
Perfect -- if you need to defrost ice cubes -- but what about defrosting meat for dinner that you forgot to set out? Can these trays defrost a 6-ounce chicken breast in 13 minutes, as some contend? Are they worth the $10-$40 price tag?
When I tested two boards, Thaw Master and the Miracle Thaw, with small frozen chicken breasts, the chicken did thaw pretty quickly, although not as quickly as the products' defrosting time charts claim. It took about 20 minutes to thaw a 6-ounce, flat chicken breast on Thaw Master, and about 24 minutes on Miracle Thaw.
We asked two volunteers to try the boards in their homes and their results were similar. Both testers said the devices would never replace the microwave in their kitchens.
The principle on which the trays work is simple enough. It's "thermal heat transfer," says Jon Brooks, President and CEO of Naturale Home Products, which makes the Thaw Master.
Thaw Master is an 9 1/2 -by-16-inch board of anodized aluminum, which, like all aluminum, is an efficient conductor of heat. It helps to conduct the warmer, room temperature air into the frozen meat, and the cooler temperature into the board, thereby raising the temperature of the frozen meat and defrosting it. The board is raised on 2-inch legs, which accelerates the thawing process, by increasing room temperature air flow around the surfaces. To speed up the process, hot water can be run over the board before placing the frozen food on it.
Mr. Brooks says that "the concept was created by a Japanese medical company in order to thaw frozen blood plasma," and that he altered it to work in the kitchen.
The Thaw Master retails for between $29.95 and $39.95.
The Miracle Thaw is sold by Telebrands through television and in area stores, sometimes retailing for as little as $10. The Miracle Thaw is slightly smaller than the Thaw Master, and it is raised on shorter legs, about 1/2 inch tall.
But for our volunteer testers, neither board compared favorably to using the microwave.
"I don't like them," says Dianne Feffer-Neas, an accomplished cook from Baltimore County.
Ms. Feffer-Neas would like to find an alternative to the microwave. She finds it dries the meat's edges while defrosting and she doesn't like the the hassle of having to watch and turn the meat. After testing the boards, however, she says "there's no advantage," in using the trays.
Ms. Feffer-Neas defrosted one 12-ounce, boneless chicken breast on each board.
"Master Thaw is clearly the better one, but it took nearly three hours to defrost the chicken breasts," she complained. Because of the way these large chicken breasts were packaged -- in a log shape -- little meat was in contact with the trays.
"That doesn't surprise me," responds Jon Brooks in defense of Thaw Master. "The meat needs to be in contact with the surface in order to work," and most people who use a thawing tray learn to store their meat as flat as possible, he says.
"Anything proportioned for a family -- forget it," says Ms. Feffer-Neas, after thawing a three-quarter-pound steak took too long for her. She suggested that the boards might be useful for defrosting foods too delicate for the microwave, such as smoked salmon.
Ms. Feffer-Neas' use of these thawing boards caused her to violate the first rule of defrosting safety. According to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, perishable products should not remain out of the refrigerator for more than two hours at a time. But the USDA has not said not to use the boards.
"If it does what it says, in the time frame that we recommend that is safe [two hours], then there is no problem," says Bessie Berry, acting director of the Meat and Poultry Hotline.
In that case, large items such as roasts, turkeys, whole chickens or anything that would take more than two hours would not be appropriate for thawing on the boards. Hamburger patties, small boneless chicken breasts, and other items that defrost quickly would be safe.
Another volunteer tester, Roy List, was disappointed with the boards' performances at defrosting bricks of homemade apple sauce. He tested two unwrapped packages of equal size and found that very little of the sauce had defrosted in the recommended time.
"If I was going to give up more kitchen space to another gadget, it wouldn't be this one," says this avid home cook, an environmental enforcement worker for Baltimore County.
When we related our experiences with the thawing trays to Mr. Brooks, he said that "the times will vary based on the thickness of the item being thawed, the room temperature, the density or hardness of the item being defrosted."
The thawing boards do have their supporters.
"As far as I'm concerned, they probably take all of the inconvenience out of the freezer, says Art Ginsburg, who appears as "Mr. Food" daily on WMAR-Channel 2 during the noon newscast.
When he first saw the boards, he thought "What kind of gimmick is that?"
But a manufacturer sent him one to try and he was impressed.
Mr. Ginsburg says he prefers using the thawing boards instead of the microwave for defrosting because the microwave dries out the edges of meat.
"When you put hamburger patties or chicken breasts on the thaw boards, there isn't all that juice," he says pointing out that because the meat stays cold while defrosting, liquid does not escape.
"As far as I'm concerned all of them work, but some work better," says Mr. Ginsburg. He recommends sticking with the more expensive brands.