How long thawed meat stays good?
I tend to buy a bunch of meat in one shopping trip (mostly chicken and turkey cutlets, and ground lean beef and turkey), then freeze it for later use.
1) I tend to do a counter/fridge combo for thawing--let the meat sit on the counter to thaw overnight, then put in fridge in the morning to finish. Is this thoroughly disgusting and wrong?
2) Once thawed, how long should this meat stay fresh in the fridge? I know I can smell when it's gone bad, but is there a rule of thumb, on average?
No not disgusting, if as you said, you thaw it overnight and put it in the fridge in the morning. I'd use thawed meat stored in the fridge within 3 days and that's pushing it slightly, and am assuming it's wrapped properly.
Officially, you're not supposed to thaw at room temperature. A lot of us start thawing that way, and move to the fridge (just like you), but we're all taking our chances a bit. Overnight is a long time to leave out on the counter. It is a bit chancy.
Not knowing how warm the outer edges of the meat got during your counter-thawing, it's really impossible to estimate how long you can safely expect to keep it in the fridge. Personally, if I "cheated" and did some counter thawing time, followed by refrigeration, I would cook it within a day. I would never thaw overnight on the counter. That seems too long. Even if the inside is still a bit frozen, the outside has been above 40 degrees for too long.
The reverse is better: Put frozen meat in the fridge and leave it there until thawed (this will vary with weight and shape, could be hours or days), then move to counter to bring closer to room temp before cooking, especially if you want to sear the meat. The warmer and drier it is, the better the sear/crust will be.
If a fast thaw is needed, put the frozen meat in watertight wrapping and submerge in cold water, weighing it down. Leave the water running or not. Running will be a little faster, but wastes water.
I also freeze meat I buy in larger quantities. When I leave for work in the morning, I take what I'm going to cook out of the freezer and put it in the kitchen sink to thaw. It stays there all day, then I cook it when I get home. It's probably been sitting there maybe 10 hours by that point. I've been doing this for 20 years and have never had a problem. I find putting frozen meat in the fridge to thaw, it doesn't thaw at all, I can leave it in there all day and it will still be hard as a rock. I thaw frozen turkeys in a sink full of water, not in the fridge, for that reason.
Be very careful leaving any food out overnight and all day to thaw. Especially overnight. Proper thawing is in your refrigerator or under "running cold water" not in cold water. Many people don't realize how often they in fact poison their families. Often, those "24 hour flues" are food poisoning. Leaving food in the fridge all day - no it wont't be thawed by dinner - but it will require a short time in your microwave to thaw. Just never take chances.
My butcher told me that thawed ground beef should be cooked within 24 hours.....
As for thawing, fridge or microwave is the safest. I know that people do the sink or counter thawin' thing, but it's not recommended.
Even if (as one poster said) you've been doing it for 20 years, you only need to have a problem once to have a problem. C'mon everyone, let's keep our families and friends as safe as possible.