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How to Thaw Milk Properly

From the freezer to your morning coffee, with no ice crystals. Learn how to defrost milk like a pro.

A great way to save money on milk is to look for bulk discounts at the supermarket and buy a dozen cartons when your favorite brand and type of milk is offered at such a bargain, you just can’t pass it up.

The thing is that milk is a perishable product, meaning it spoils quickly. Raw milk, even when unopened, only keeps for 5-7 days when raw. In contrast, UHT milk keeps for 1-2 months when refrigerated.

Chances are you bought UHT milk. If you live in the United States, that’s pretty much the only kind of milk on stores’ shelves. Still, if you bought a big batch of it, your only option is to freeze the milk and thaw it as needed, one carton or jug at a time.

Thawing milk, as you’ve probably found out by now, is easier said than done. By the time you’re done reading this article, you will know how to do it properly and safely, without compromising on its texture and taste.

How Do I Thaw Milk?

In general, there are two ways to thaw milk safely: by moving it from the freezer to the refrigerator and leaving it there overnight, or by thawing it briefly in cold water.

Whichever method you choose, remember to give the carton of milk a good shake once it’s thawed out. The milk fat separates from the milk solids when frozen—and shaking helps you mix it all back together.

Oh, and you’re probably wondering why the microwave isn’t on our list. Let’s just say that the “Defrost” setting on your microwave isn’t the best way to thaw milk. We’ll get to the reasons why in a moment.

Thawing Milk in the Fridge

Putting frozen milk in the fridge allows it to thaw at a safe temperature of 40°F (4°C) or less, so you don’t have to worry about your milk spoiling.

Besides, this defrosting method is as simple as defrosting methods get: all you need to do is take the milk carton out of the freezer, put it in the refrigerator, and let it defrost for 24-48 hours. And voilà, you have drinkable milk!

If your milk was frozen in its original container, you don’t have to worry about spilled milk. However, milk that’s been frozen in freezer bags should be put in a bowl in the refrigerator (just in case the seal breaks when the milk thaws).

Milk takes a while to thaw in the refrigerator. For a small freezer bag or carton, expect it to take 7-8 hours to thaw out. A gallon jug of frozen milk can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to completely defrost.

Since it can take so long for milk to thaw out in the fridge, it’s best to take it out of the freezer a day or two before you will need it. This gives the milk time to thaw safely—and you won’t need to resort to less safe methods like using the microwave.

Thawing Milk in Cold Water

Another option is to thaw your frozen milk in a sink full of cold water. You could also use a large pot or bowl of cold water to thaw smaller containers of milk. This is a good option when you need to defrost your milk faster, or if you don’t have space in the fridge at the moment.

For the milk to stay at a safe temperature, the water in the sink needs to stay cold. Otherwise, bacteria will start to feed on and replicate in the milk, causing it to spoil faster and making it unsafe for consumption.

Check the temperature of the water every 30 minutes. If the water is getting warm, empty the sink out and refill it with cold water. Thawing milk in cold water is faster than thawing it in the refrigerator, but it can still take a few hours, depending on the size of the container.

How Long Is Thawed Milk Good For?

Before freezing milk, you’ll need to check the best-by, sell-by, or use-by date. This will impact how long your milk will be good for after thawing it out.

Now, here’s where it can get a little confusing for some of us…

As Registered Dietitian Kelly McGrane tells readers of Healthline, these dates don’t necessarily tell you when the milk has spoiled. Instead, they tell you when the milk has reached its peak of freshness, and from what moment on its quality will slowly but surely start to decline.

That’s the reason why most food-storage websites tell you that milk, as long as it hasn’t spoiled, is generally safe to eat for a few days after its best-by, sell-by, or use-by date.

For example, if you put your milk in the freezer the day before its best-by date, it is only going to be good for a few days after it thaws. Similarly, if you freeze your milk three days before its best before date, it will be safe to drink for give or take a week after thawing.

Consider how much milk you use on a regular basis and then freeze in adequate portions. You can pour one- or two-cup portions of milk into freezer bags and then put them in the freezer. Freezing smaller amounts ensures that none of your milk goes to waste.

Once you remove your milk from the freezer, use a marker to write the date on the milk container, so you know how long it is going to stay fresh.

It’s important to note that this isn’t an exact science—and the only person who can decide whether or not a bag, carton, or jug of milk is truly safe to drink or cook with is you.

Does Milk Go Yellow When Frozen?

When you take your milk out of the freezer, don’t be alarmed if it has a yellow tinge to it.

When milk freezes, the individual components separate, one of which is called riboflavin. This B vitamin naturally has a yellow-orange hue and, when it becomes separated from the fats and proteins in the milk, it is more visible.

Once your milk is thawed and you shake or stir it up, it should more or less return to its original white color.

Does Defrosted Milk Taste Different?

Milk that has been frozen and defrosted can taste different–but it depends who you ask!

Some people don’t notice any change in taste, while others say they can definitely tell the difference between fresh and thawed milk.

If you do notice a change in the taste of milk once it has thawed, consider using it for recipes or on cereal, where the altered taste will be less noticeable than if drinking a glass of it. For the same reasons, frozen milk that has been thawed is ideal for use in cookies, muffins, pancakes, and cupcakes.

Can I Defrost Milk in the Microwave?

Thawing frozen milk in the microwave is not recommended; it’s just too easy to overheat the milk.

When thawing milk in the microwave, some of the liquid can begin to cook before the rest of the milk is completely thawed. Still, if you absolutely have to use a microwave because you’re short on time, only use the “Defrost” setting and drink or cook with the milk shortly after it’s thawed out.

Plastic should never go in the microwave, as the high heat can cause the industrial chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) and the Phthalates contain in plastics to leach out into your food. Some types of plastic, such as Type 5 Phthalates, is often marketed as “microwave safe.” Yet many cooks decide to not risk it.

Depending on what sort of container your milk was frozen in, you may need to transfer it to a glass or ceramic bowl before putting it in the microwave. This can be challenging to do while your milk is frozen—another reason to avoid microwave thawing altogether!

Can I Thaw Milk in Hot Water?

Large quantities of milk should not be thawed using hot water as it is easy for the milk to overheat this way. If you have a small amount of milk, such as a cup or two, you can place the container under warm, not hot, water until it thaws.

Since hot water thawing encourages bacterial growth, and thus spoilage, it should only be used when you’re planning to drink or cook with all of the milk immediately after it’s done thawing.

Don’t refrigerate or refreeze milk that’s been thawed out in hot water. For reasons of safety, any leftovers should be thrown away.

As the Food & Drug Administration points out on its website, food can make you very sick even when it doesn’t look, smell, or taste spoiled. That’s because food poisoning is caused by pathogenic bacteria, and pathogenic bacteria is different from the bacteria that cause spoilage.

How Long Does Milk Last in the Freezer?

The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both state that properly frozen food stays safe to eat indefinitely. That said, the quality of the food decreases the longer it is kept frozen.

As a general rule of thumb, UHT milk will keep its best quality for 3-6 months in the freezer. After this time, it will start to lose some of its nutritional value, and its consistency, aroma, and/or flavor may be compromised.

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Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.