It depends. No, really.
It’s what you might call a multi-variate system, if you were trying to make it more difficult rather than easier. But we want to make it easier.
Beef will thaw well in the fridge in one to three days, depending on the cut and the size. Thin steaks and ground should take a day or so; larger braising cuts and roasts will take longer.
Simply place off to the side in refrigerator in wrap. Or, better, unwrap and place the beef in a covered dish (Pyrex or similar). Ideal thaw point is soft all over, juice still held within. If it sits in its juices too long, it can develop off flavors.
Simply place off to the side in refrigerator in wrap. Again, better, unwrap and place in Pyrex or a similar covered dish. If paper wrapped beef starts to bleed, it won’t develop off flavors, but it will make a mess in your refrigerator. Be sure to place paper wrapped beef on a dish with a rim.
There are two ways to quick-thaw beef: water bath and microwave. Water bath can be as quick as thirty minutes for a nice even thaw with good flavor on small packages. Microwave can be far quicker still, but it tends to toughen and dry the beef.
Vacuum packed, Water bath
Place sealed package in a big bowl of water. Small steaks can thaw in thirty minutes; one-pound packs of ground take an hour or so. Bigger cuts take longer.
Vacuum packed, Microwave
Not recommended, but very quick and easy. Remove from package, and thaw according to machine instructions by weight, in a dish with a rim to avoid spills.
Paper wrapped, Water bath
Unwrap and place in a plastic slide-lock or veggie bag. Blow up like a balloon first to check for leaks. If it leaks, your beef will waterlog. Gross, but steaks may cook well anyway with luck. Waterlogged ground is difficult to recover, though it could work in a sauce such as a Bolognese.
Paper wrapped, Microwave
Again, not recommended, but quick and easy. Unwrap and thaw according to machine instructions by weight, in a rimmed dish or bowl.
Roasts can take three to four days to thaw. We recommend unwrapping and thawing in Pyrex or a big bowl with plastic wrap cover. Roasts will thaw unevenly in water bath, though you can semi-speed-thaw a roast, wrapped, in a water bath inside your refrigerator.
We do not recommend countertop water bath thawing of roasts, as the center will stay frozen longer than the perimeter, and you don’t want the meat to rise above 40 degrees until you’re ready to cook it.
You can partially speed-thaw a larger cut such as a brisket in a five gallon bucket if need be, but far better to slow-thaw ahead in the refrigerator, or complete the partial speed-thaw with a long, slow braise. Delicious.
Cook frozen: Good for stews and braising
For stew meat, bone broth or smaller braising cuts, you can simply put the frozen meat straight into the cooking water, along with a mirepoix or other flavors, and start your braise. Yum!
Whatever method you use, it’s important to keep the meat cool while thawing. Thawing at room temperature can create an environment where bacteria will grow in the meat.
Bringing the meat to room temperature briefly before cooking can offer excellent results on the grill. Placing the meat on a room temperature platter shortly before cooking can work well.
For more information, see https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/the-big-thaw-safe-defrosting-methods-for-consumers/CT_Index