We’ve all been there: It’s the end of a long day, you haven’t planned on anything for dinner, and all the meat you have on hand is frozen solid.
Sure, you can make a meal out of whatever vegetables are languishing in the crisper, but it’s preferable to add some protein to the mix. Because chicken is lean, versatile, and fast-cooking, it’s always a popular choice. Can you grill frozen chicken? You’re about to find out.
Can You Grill Frozen Chicken?
It is possible to grill frozen chicken without thawing it beforehand. However, before we get into the safest ways to go about it, we should familiarize ourselves with the risks.
If you have any other option, it’s best not to cook chicken while it’s still frozen. For one thing, the meat will take at least 50 percent longer to cook, which largely negates any time savings you might have acquired in the first place. Because of the excess moisture caused by the rapid thawing, the texture of the chicken might be slightly rubbery.
Worse still, eating undercooked poultry can lead to salmonella poisoning and other food-borne illnesses. The CDC estimates that around 135 million cases of salmonella poisoning occur each year in the US alone; about 450 of those people will die from the infection.
Chicken needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before it’s safe to eat. In case you’re wondering why that’s not the case with beef, it’s because red meat is denser than white meat. The bacteria won’t penetrate it as easily, which is why rare beef is perfectly safe to consume.
In short, raw and undercooked poultry is nothing to mess around with, which is why it’s safer to thaw the meat before cooking it.
Best Methods for Defrosting
Below, we’ve listed our favorite defrosting methods in descending order, with the best one at the top. They’ll also get less time-consuming as you make your way down the list, so if you’re truly pressed for time, you might want to start at the bottom and work your way up, depending on preference.
Method #1: Refrigerator
We would recommend using this method if you have enough time. Thawing chicken in the refrigerator takes about 24 hours, but it will keep dangerous bacteria at bay. It will also provide you with your best chance of producing tender, juicy grilled chicken.
Method #2: Counter
If the chicken is still frozen at lunchtime and you’d like to cook it for dinner, it’s permissible to leave it out on the counter for 4-6 hours. Keep the chicken tightly wrapped and place it on a plate with paper towels underneath to catch any liquid. Don’t allow the chicken pieces to come to room temperature, and always wipe down the counter with an antibacterial spray when you’re through.
Method #3: Water Bath
This option works only if the frozen chicken is tightly sealed in a zip-top bag or another secure wrapper.
Fill a sink or large bowl with cool water and place the wrapped chicken inside. Change out the water every half hour or so to keep the temperature stable. Most chicken parts will thaw in 1-2 hours if this method is used properly.
Tip: You might be tempted to use warm water in an effort to speed the process along. Don’t do this—it will invite the sort of bacteria that you’re trying to avoid in the first place.
Method #4: Defrosting Tray
If you don’t have a defrosting tray, it’s a good idea to invest in one as soon as possible. These ridged metal trays are designed to drain the cold from the meat naturally, with no electricity or batteries required.
Look for a tray with an attached container to collect the juices as the meat thaws. It should also be large enough to hold all of the meat you’d like to thaw at once, so you won’t have to repeat the process with additional pieces. A quality defrosting tray should have the job done within 30 minutes.
Method #5: Microwave
This is the fastest method of all, but you’ll have to watch carefully to make sure that the meat is thawing and not cooking through in spots. Also, have the grill ready before you start to defrost the meat. The longer the chicken sits at room temperature, the greater the risk of bacterial infection.
Set the chicken in a microwave-safe bowl and place it in the microwave. Use the “defrost” setting for 1-2 minutes, depending on how powerful your microwave is. Rotate the chicken pieces to ensure that the thinner pieces aren’t cooking through as the meat thaws. Set to defrost for an additional 1-2 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the microwave, season as desired, and begin grilling at once.
Tips on Preparing Frozen Chicken on the Grill
While we would recommend using one of the defrosting options listed above, we understand that you might not have enough time. This is a particular concern if you don’t own a microwave or a defrosting tray. Never fear—you still have one last resort.
If you do decide to go ahead and grill the chicken while it’s still frozen, here’s how to minimize the risks. The texture might still be a bit off, but you’ll have dinner on the table in a timely fashion.
Plan on increasing your total cooking time by at least 50 percent. That is, if it usually takes 15-20 minutes for the chicken pieces to cook through, you should allow for 23-30 minutes when the meat is frozen.
You should also start grilling the chicken pieces over indirect heat to give the meat a chance to thaw. Otherwise, the insides may still be frozen when the outsides are already charred to perfection.
Remember—you’re trying to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees without drying out the thinner spots. That’s why it helps if the pieces are spread out, rather than clumped together in one spot. Also, if you’re cooking boneless chicken breasts or tenderloins, direct the thinner ends as far from the flames as possible.
Tip: Grilled chicken wings are a popular option for larger gatherings, and they can be prepared straight out of the freezer as well. You’ll just need to allow for at least 90 minutes to give the wings time to cook through. For tips on grilling frozen wings, take a look at this video.
A Word About Pellet Grills
Because pellet smokers can be easily set to low temperatures, you might think it’s a good idea to slow-cook the frozen chicken in this fashion. Our advice, however, is to avoid this temptation.
Why? Because the colder parts of the chicken might spend too long in the “danger zone”—that is, in the range of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. These are the temperatures at which bacteria are most likely to grow. That’s why you should never cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker—the same risks apply. If you have a pellet grill, stick to the grilling method we described.
The Bottom Line
Can you grill frozen chicken or not?
The CDC says yes, but it’s important to follow the guidelines we’ve listed above. Ultimately, you want the chicken to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit throughout, with no dry or rubbery patches. It’s also imperative for the meat to spend as little time as possible in the “danger zone” of 40 to 140 degrees. As long as you remember these basic criteria, you can cook your frozen chicken safely and effectively.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!