You probably know that thawing meat such as beef or poultry on the counter is asking for trouble. Bacteria can build up quickly in the outer layers of meat once it warms past about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, even if the inside is still frozen. “Many common bacteria on meat, like Clostridium, Eschrichia coli, Staphylococcus and Salmonella, can grow to dangerous levels, if the food is improperly thawed,” says Caroline Smith Dewaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization.

Bacteria thrive in temperatures between about 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit and take only about two hours to start multiplying. The more bacteria you’re exposed to, the more likely you are to become sick after eating the affected meat. Cooking meat that’s thawed to the proper temperature doesn’t always kill off all the bacteria. Certain bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus create heat resistant toxins or heat stable spores, which remain toxic even after cooking, and can cause illness.

Food safety experts say there are only three ways to thaw your meat. They’re listed here from the slowest to fastest methods.

In the fridge

Thawing meat in the refrigerator is the safest — but slowest — way to defrost. Place the meat on a plate to catch juices that may leak. Count on about a day to fully thaw a 4-pack of chicken breasts or about 5 pounds of ground beef. Depending on the size, turkeys or larger roasts can take up to five days to defrost in the fridge. While defrosting, ground meat, stew meat and poultry can remain in the refrigerator for about three days before spoiling. Beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks can be refrigerated for up to five days while defrosting.

In water

Soaking meat in water is faster than fridge thawing (and safer than countertop thawing). That’s because water transfers heat more efficiently than air — even chilled air. First, put the packaged meat in a sealed plastic bag to prevent bacteria from the air or water from entering. This also keeps water from being absorbed into the meat, which will affect the taste once it’s cooked. Next, fill a deep dish or large bowl with cold water. Place the meat in the bowl making sure that it’s fully submerged (you may need to weight it down). Change the water every 30 minutes. It should take a pound of meat less than an hour to thaw. 3 to 4 pounds of meat may take two to three hours. Cook food immediately after thawing so it doesn’t have a chance for bacteria to grow.

In the microwave

The fastest way to thaw frozen meats is in the microwave. The downside: Thawing meat in a microwave means you risk partially cooking the food, and throwing off the taste. Follow the instructions of your microwave — most have defrost settings to reduce the chance of meat cooking. Cook the meat immediately after thawing it so bacteria doesn’t have a chance to grow.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist for the New York Times, national consumer magazines and websites.