You can use an ice chest to thaw meat, provided you have enough ice or refreezable ice packs to keep the meat at the same temperature as your refrigerator. Meat thaws if it is above the freezing point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. To prevent harmful bacteria from growing, keep it below 40 F.
Maintaining the Temperature
To maintain the right temperature in your ice chest while you are thawing meat, create a cold environment using ice, refreezable ice packs or dry ice. Dry ice is extremely cold, so use only a few small chunks or your ice chest will be too cold for your meat to thaw. Allow some ventilation between the meat and the ice or ice packs, so the meat can reach a temperature at which it will thaw. Use a refrigerator thermometer to determine whether the cooler is at the proper temperature of 33 to 40 F. Open the cooler as infrequently as possible.
Sanitation and Food Safety
Your meat should be well sealed if you are thawing it in an ice chest. Store the original package in a sturdy zip-closing freezer bag. If you are storing any other foods in your ice chest while your meat is defrosting, place them above -- rather than below -- your thawing meat, especially if they are foods that you will be eating without cooking. When the meat is fully thawed, discard the ice you have used in the cooler. If you see traces of blood on your refreezable ice packs, sanitize them with a solution of 1 teaspoon bleach to 1 gallon of water. Sanitize the inside of your ice chest as well, by wiping it down with a towel and the bleach solution.
It will probably take at least eight hours to thaw a 1-pound piece of meat in the cooler. For larger cuts, allow 24 hours for each 5 pounds of meat. If you have thawed your meat at a safe temperature, you can keep ground beef and poultry in your refrigerator for a day before using it, and you can keep red meat for three to five days. You can safely hold them in your ice chest for this length of time as well, provided you maintain the temperature by adding fresh ice or replacing thawed ice packs with freshly frozen ones, and keeping your thermometer in the ice chest to make sure it is cold enough.