How To Safely Thaw Frozen Chicken

Read this before you defrost that pack of chicken breasts.

frozen chicken
Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Thawing or defrosting chicken requires you to warm the frozen meat until it's no longer frozen. However, heat is the enemy in this situation.

That's right—you really don't want to use heat of any type to thaw chicken. (A microwave can be used, but more on that later.) Instead, you want to put the chicken in safe situations that are warmer than a freezer, but still plenty cool enough to avoid bacterial growth.

In this article, we'll outline three ways to thaw chicken.

How to Safely Thaw Chicken

The safest way to defrost frozen chicken also happens to be the easiest way:

  1. Transfer the chicken in its packaging from the freezer to the refrigerator.
  2. Allow it to slowly defrost 12 to 24 hours, or until completely thawed.
  3. When it is fully thawed, you can store it in the refrigerator for an additional one to two days, or refreeze it, if you change your mind.

The only downside to this method is that it requires a little advance planning because it can take a full day for it to defrost, or even longer if the chicken is whole or has bone-in parts. And when dinner needs to be on the table now, and you're looking at a package of rock-hard frozen chicken thighs, that's not going work.

How to Thaw Chicken Quickly

So you need plan B: thawing the chicken in cold water.

  1. Keep the chicken in its original packaging, or place it in a sealed zip-top plastic bag.
  2. Place a large bowl in the kitchen sink, and fill it with cold water.
  3. Submerge the chicken, changing the water every 30 minutes so that it stays cold.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a whole (3- to 4-pound) chicken or package of bone-in chicken parts should thaw in two to three hours using the water defrost method. A 1-pound package of boneless breasts will thaw in an hour or less.

Can You Use the Microwave to Defrost Chicken?

Yes, you can defrost frozen chicken out of its packaging in the microwave.

However, you must cook it immediately after it has been thawed to destroy any harmful bacteria that may form as the chicken warms up.

The USDA recommends arranging the chicken parts in a dish or on a rack so that the thickest parts of the bird are toward the outside of dish and the thin, bonier parts are toward the center.

Can You Thaw Chicken on the Counter?

Never let frozen chicken thaw on your kitchen counter.

The average room temperature (around 68°F to 70°F) is far too warm and will quickly put the chicken in the bacterial growth "danger zone." The outside portions of the chicken will thaw and be warm before the inside is defrosted.

If you thaw chicken on the counter, you put everyone at risk for foodborne illness.

Can You Just Cook Frozen Chicken?

Yes, in many cases, you can just cook with frozen chicken, but keep in mind that doing so will extend the cooking time, sometime by as much as 50 percent.

Important: Do not cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker or a microwave. Neither of these methods will warm chicken quickly enough, and the chicken will remain in that temperature "danger zone" too long. If you plan to use either of these appliances, you need to start with fully thawed chicken.

Be sure if you cook from frozen chicken, whether in an Instant Pot, in the oven, or on the stovetop, that the temperature reads 165°F before you take it off the heat.

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