The safest way to defrost chicken is to remove it from the freezer, put it in a container, and put it on a low shelf in a refrigerator for at least 24 hours or until no longer frozen. This keeps the chicken at a safe, cool temperature while it defrosts.
There are also other ways to defrost chicken that take less time, such as using a cold water bath or a microwave.
In this article, we will explain how to defrost chicken safely, and outline three methods for doing so at home.
The safest way to defrost chicken is to place it in a refrigerator. This method is safe because the refrigerator keeps the chicken cool while it is defrosting, preventing it from getting too warm for too long.
To use this method, do the following:
- Remove the chicken from the freezer at least 24 hours in advance.
- Place it in a ziplock plastic bag or container.
- Put it in the refrigerator on a low shelf and leave it there until fully defrosted.
- Cook within 1–2 days.
This method requires some planning ahead, as a person will need to begin the defrosting process at least 1 day before they plan to use the chicken.
The time it takes to work will depend on how big the pieces of the chicken are. Chicken breasts, bone-in chicken, and whole chickens can take 1–2 days to thaw in the refrigerator.
To defrost chicken more quickly, people can use a cold water bath by following these steps:
- Ensure the chicken is in an airtight packaging, or place it in a leakproof ziplock bag.
- Place it in a bowl or basin deep enough to completely submerge the chicken.
- Cover the chicken with cold water.
- Change the water every 30 minutes to ensure it stays cold.
- Once the chicken has thawed, cook it straight away.
Never use warm or hot water to defrost chicken. If water from the faucet is warm, add ice cubes to the basin before using it to defrost the chicken.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that this method will take 2–3 hours for a whole chicken, while a 1-pound package of chicken breasts can take 1 hour or less.
If there are multiple pieces in one bag that are frozen together, it may speed up thawing time to break them apart once they have thawed enough to do so. Break pieces apart from the outside of the bag to avoid opening it.
Many microwave ovens have defrost settings that allow people to defrost meat even more quickly. People can refer to the owner’s manual for specific instructions on how to use the defrost setting for chicken.
When using the microwave to defrost chicken, it is important to:
- thaw only the amount of chicken a person needs at that time
- place the chicken in a microwave-safe container
- cook the chicken immediately after defrosting it
- clean the microwave thoroughly afterward
Using a microwave to defrost meats can result in warm spots or areas that have already started to cook during the defrosting process. For this reason, it is important to defrost only what is necessary and cook the meat right away.
People should never defrost chicken at room temperature, on the kitchen counter, or in places such as a porch or basement.
Room temperature is around 68°F (20°C), which is well within the “danger zone” for poultry storage. This refers to the temperature range in which it is possible for bacteria to grow in large numbers, which is between 40–140°F (4.4–60°C).
Defrosting chicken at room temperature means exposing the meat to dangerous temperatures for longer than is safe. Doing so raises the risk of bacterial growth and foodborne illness.
In many cases, it is possible to cook chicken from frozen. The USDA states this is safe to do in most cases as long as a person extends the cooking time by 50% and ensures the chicken reaches a safe internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).
However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. People should not cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker or in the microwave, for example. These methods cause the chicken to remain at an unsafe temperature for too long. To cook chicken using these methods, it is best to defrost it fully first.
To safely cook chicken from frozen, a person should do the following:
- Wash the hands with soap and water for
20 secondsbefore handling raw chicken.
- Do not wash the chicken. This is potentially harmful for both frozen and unfrozen chicken.
- Treat the frozen chicken in the same way as unfrozen one with regard to food safety. Use a separate chopping board and utensils and avoid cross-contamination with cooked ingredients.
- Use a method of cooking that heats the chicken up quickly, such as on the stove or in the oven. Lengthen the normal cooking time by 50%.
- When done, check the internal temperature of the chicken using a meat thermometer. When it reads 165°F (74°C) or above, remove the chicken from the heat.
- Wash the thermometer with hot water and dish soap.
- Using antibacterial wipes or soap and water, wipe down any kitchen surface that may have made contact with the chicken or with the fluids from the defrosting chicken.
People can refreeze the chicken that they defrosted in a refrigerator within 1–2 days of fully defrosting it. This applies whether the chicken is still raw or already cooked.
However, if a person defrosts the chicken in a water bath or the microwave, they should cook it immediately after defrosting. Only when they have done this can they safely refreeze it.
If a person defrosts chicken in the microwave or in a water bath but they do not immediately cook it, it may not be safe to eat. It is also not safe to refreeze chicken in this scenario.
Refreezing can affect the quality of the chicken, as can leaving it in a freezer for too long. However, while frozen, the chicken is safe from bacterial growth.
Proper thawing techniques are important for keeping chicken out of the danger zone of 40–140°F (4.4–60°C). If chicken stays in this temperature range for too long, this increases the risk of people contracting foodborne illnesses once they eat it.
Foodborne illnesses, such as food poisoning, are due to bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Some of the bacteria associated with chicken include:
- Escherichia coli (E. coli)
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Campylobacter jejuni
While thoroughly cooking chicken can kill these types of bacteria, they can leave toxins behind. These toxins remain in the food even if a person cooks it at a safe temperature. One example of this is E. coli, which produces a toxin that can be fatal.
This is why people must defrost chicken safely in addition to cooking it in a safe manner.
Similarly, it is impossible to tell whether meat has gone bad just by looking at or smelling it. This is because the pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses do not necessarily cause food to spoil, so there is no way of detecting dangerous levels of these organisms by sight or smell.
Food poisoning affects
- adults over the age of 65
- children under the age of 5
- people with compromised immune systems
- pregnant people
Foodborne illnesses can also lead to complications. For example, some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) develop symptoms after having an acute intestinal infection from contaminated food or water. Experts refer to this as post-infectious IBS.
If a person is in doubt as to whether their chicken is safe to eat, it is best to be cautious and avoid consuming it.
Defrosting chicken at a cool temperature in the refrigerator is the safest method. People who have less time at their disposal can use a cold water bath or the defrost setting on their microwave.
When defrosting chicken using one of the quicker methods, it is important to cook it immediately once it is no longer frozen. Following food safety guidelines can help people stay healthy and avoid foodborne illness.