frozen chicken breasts in a bag

Getting chicken (safely!) from a rock-hard frozen state to a thawed ready-to-cook state raises a lot of questions. Here is all you need to know about how to thaw chicken.

How to Defrost Chicken

First, chicken should never be thawed or defrosted on the counter at room temperature or in a bowl of hot water. The following methods should allow you to thaw chicken and keep it out of the “danger zone” (40 to 140°F), which is the temperature zone that allows bacteria to grow.

In general, larger cuts of chicken, especially a whole chicken, should be thawed in the refrigerator.  If a whole chicken or a larger amount of parts are thawed in a microwave the chicken will start to cook on the outside before it defrosts in the middle.  And whole chickens will take a very long time in a bowl of cold water.  However, smaller cuts, and especially boneless cuts, do well with the cold bowl of water or microwave method.

How Long is Frozen Chicken Good For?

You should use frozen chicken pieces within 6 months.  A whole chicken can be frozen for up to a year.  Wrap the chicken well in heavy duty plastic wrap, and then place it into a freezer proof plastic bag.  Press out all excess air, and then seal it.  If the chicken was very fresh when it was frozen, and you wrap it very well, it can last up to a few months longer. 

Refrigerator Thawing Chicken

This is the most reliable and safe method, and also the one that requires no hands-on attention.  But you need to plan ahead, especially if you are thawing a whole chicken, or a large amount of bone-in pieces in a single package.  It might not be the fastest method, but it is the safest.

How Long to Thaw chicken in the Fridge?

Even a pound of ground chicken or a couple of pounds of boneless chicken breasts will probably take up to a day to fully thaw in the fridge, and a a bunch of bone-in pieces or a five pound bird might take two days. You can leave refrigerator-thawed chicken in the fridge for up to 3 days before cooking.  The amount of time thawed chicken can be held in the fridge depends on how fresh it was when it was frozen. 

Quick Thaw Chicken in Water

Air Fryer Buffalo Chicken Wings

To thaw chicken when you are in a rush, place frozen chicken in a tightly sealed bag (either in vacuum sealed bags or sturdy, leak-proof, zipper-top storage bags) in a bowl of cold water.

Do NOT thaw chicken in hot water! It’s not safe.  Besides possibly causing bacteria to form, warm water will also start to “cook” the outside of the meat before the middle is thawed).  Some people like to place the sealed chicken in a bowl, and allow cold water to run over the chicken, filling the bowl and overflowing into the sink, until the chicken is defrosted.  This is effective, but a pretty big waste of water, so I don’t recommend it.

How Long to Thaw Chicken in Water?

You can thaw ground chicken (or turkey) in about an hour, a small amount of boneless chicken will probably defrost in 1 to 2 hours, larger amounts and bigger cuts may take a few hours.  

If you are thawing multiple pieces in a bag, once the pieces have thawed enough to be separated, open the bag, pull the pieces apart, then reseal the bag and return it to the water.  This will speed up the defrosting.  Keep checking until the meat is thawed.  Once the meat is thawed using this method you should cook it right away.

How to Defrost Chicken in the Microwave

Some newer microwaves have settings that allow you to defrost or thaw chicken (and many other ingredients) by simply pressing a button.  Read your instruction manual to see if your microwave has this kind of capacity, and note special directions having to do with the amount of chicken, and the type of cut.

How Long to Thaw Chicken in Microwave?

Otherwise, you can thaw your chicken in the microwave but it will require some attention on your part.   Set the microwave to defrost, and check every few minutes to see when it is thawed properly.  Move the chicken around in the microwave, especially if you don’t have a rotating tray.  Even if you are super vigilant, often the thinner parts of the chicken will start to cook a bit while the thicker parts are still thawing, so it’s not the ideal method for defrosting.

Chicken and all meat thawed in the microwave should be cooked right away.

chicken in a pan

Cooking Frozen Chicken

You can cook chicken in its frozen state.  The general rule of thumb is to add another 50% of cooking time from the time suggested in the recipe.  Certain cooking methods, such as braising, or cooking it in the slow cooker, or using the chicken in soups and stews lend themselves better to cooking frozen meat.

Other methods (like sautéing, roasting, or microwaving) may yield slightly uneven results or a less-than ideal texture.  It’s very likely that the outside of the chicken may cook faster than than the inside.

For instance, you won’t be able to get a nice caramelized exterior on a piece of frozen chicken if you sear or sauté it, as the the chicken will slowly release moisture as it thaws while cooking in the pan, preventing browning.  So best to defrost the chicken before cooking it using these methods, and pat it dry.

What is the Safe Temperature for Chicken?

However you cook your chicken, whether it was frozen or not, you want to make sure it gets to an internal temperature of 165°F.  The best way to measure the temperature is to insert an instant read thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken.  You should take into account carryover cooking, which is the fact that the chicken will continue to cook a bit after it leaves the heat.  So, the temperature will continue to climb a a handful of degrees, and you might want to take it from the heat when the thermometer reaches 160°F, and then watch the temp climb to 165°F.  That’s the safe temp for chicken.

Also see: How to Safely Thaw Frozen Meat.

Comments

  1. I bought 40lbs of chicken all frozen together.i want it to defrost so I can refreeze it. I did leave out on counter and was able to pull parts away and they were still frozen. Should I leave in fridge for the rest to defrost?

  2. Contrary to information provided by the manufacturers of slow cookers (and to the not uncommon practice of cooking meat from frozen in a slow cooker), it is considered unsafe to cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker. This is because frozen chicken will spend too much time in the “danger zone,” when bacteria grows. Sure, you can use a meat thermometer to ensure the chicken reaches the safe temp of 165 degrees F but bacteria that grew — rapidly — while the chicken was in that unsafe zone may not be killed by that heat. The concern isn’t the appearance, taste or texture of the chicken, but the growth of bacteria and the consequential food borne illnesses.

  3. This doesn’t help a bit. But, thanks. FYI, I’ve thawed chicken on the counter top for decades. Still waiting for someone to die.

  4. @denise That’s like saying if you’ve never gotten in a car accident you must not be a dangerous driver. Makes no sense and doesn’t discredit facts.

  5. Regardless of whether or not someone’s gotten sick and died, it IS still growing bacteria when you do that, and there is a chance someone will get sick.

    That said, I’ve also been doing it for ages and never had issues. Doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe though, which I recognize

  6. I left 2 boneless chicken breasts on my counter and went to work for 10 hours. It’s room temperature. Can I still cook it or is it no good

    1. In the fridge, bone-in pieces might take up to two days to thaw. Ground chicken and boneless pieces will thaw more quickly, whether you thaw them in the fridge or in cold water, and bone-in pieces or a whole bird will take longer.

  7. What exactly do you put the chicken breasts in when thawing in the fridge? I have a big bag of frozen chicken and only want to defrost a couple pieces. Do I re-weap in plastic? Put in a bowl? Both? Thanks!

    1. you can do either! best not to refreeze chicken though, so if you can separate the pieces you want to defrost easily and keep the rest frozen that’s best. You can deforst them in a covered bowl (plastic wrap of a dishtowel) or rewrap them or put them in a zippertop bag.

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