Have you ever left frozen chicken out overnight and wondered if it was still safe to eat? It’s happened to the best of us. Our ultimate guide will explain—in detail—why this practice is not a good idea.
Can You Leave Frozen Chicken Out Overnight?
You should never leave any meat product at room temperature overnight. This applies whether the product is frozen, cooked, or raw. At room temperature, the meat attracts hazardous bacteria that can’t be eradicated by cooking or reheating. If you’ve left frozen chicken out overnight, you’ll need to discard it.
A Word About Safe Storage
You probably already know that you should keep meat products refrigerated as often as possible. This rule applies to cooked meat as well as the raw product. But do you know why it’s so important?
The truth is that bacteria have the ability to breed rapidly at room temperature. In the span between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning can double in number in just 20 minutes.
Your refrigerator should be set to a temperature below 40 degrees. 33 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. If it’s set to 39, you’re creeping too close to the danger zone. But if it drops below the 32 degree mark, your food might freeze.
When you store meat in the freezer, bacterial growth halts in its tracks. In theory, you can keep food frozen indefinitely. While meat won’t spoil during its stint in the freezer, it can be unpleasantly dry after thawing if you keep it in there too long.
How Long Can Frozen Chicken Sit Out?
No meat product should be kept at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. In fact, if the temperature outside exceeds 90 degrees, that window shortens to just 1 hour.
You might be surprised to learn that this rule applies to frozen chicken as well. After all, the meat has been safely stored at a temperature below 0 for some time. Won’t it take that much longer for it to warm up to room temperature?
Yes and no. It will indeed take a while for the chicken to thaw out completely. But the meat that’s closest to the surface will warm up quickly, heading straight into the danger zone.
It will probably be several hours before the chicken is fully defrosted. That means the meat on the surface will have been sitting in the danger zone long enough for bacteria to thrive.
Don’t be tempted to leave your frozen chicken out on the counter to thaw. You might think you’ll be saving time, but you’ll actually be putting yourself at risk. There are safer ways to cut corners, as we’ll discuss in greater detail later on.
What About Frozen Leftovers?
What if the chicken is cooked? Would it be safe to leave the leftovers out on the counter to thaw overnight?
Sadly, the answer is still no. While cooking the meat to a safe internal temperature will destroy any bacteria that might have been lurking on the surface, other bacteria will still be attracted to the cooked meat if it sits at room temperature too long.
Also, know that cooking raw chicken that’s been left out overnight won’t save the product. If the bacteria were allowed to breed on the surface long enough, they would have left heat-resistant toxins behind.
The good news? You don’t have to defrost cooked leftovers before reheating them. They’ll take a bit longer to heat through than they would if they weren’t frozen, but heating them straight from the freezer should still save time.
How To Thaw Chicken Safely
While you should never leave chicken—or any meat product—out on the counter to thaw, there are several safe alternatives. We’ll start with our favorite approach and work our way down to the one that should only be used as a last resort.
In The Fridge
The refrigerator is the safest defrosting method by far. Not only is it a convenient and largely hands-off technique, it ensures that the chicken will remain at a safe temperature for the duration of the thaw.
To begin, make sure your refrigerator is set within the temperature range between 33 and 38 degrees. Then remove the chicken from the freezer and set it on a plate or rimmed baking sheet. This is to ensure that the juices won’t drip all over the place as the meat thaws.
Make room on the bottom shelf of the fridge. You can put the plate anywhere in the fridge, but the lower shelf is best because it will reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
It’s also preferable to store the meat as far toward the rear as possible. Every time you open the refrigerator door, a blast of warm air gusts in. This shouldn’t pose a major problem, but the chicken will stay colder if it’s kept far away from the door.
Once the chicken is in the fridge, all you have to do is wait for it to thaw. This should take about 4 to 5 hours for every pound of meat.
If you’re only thawing a package of chicken breasts for the grill, you should be able to pull them from the freezer and cook them off on the same day. For whole chickens, allow for a defrosting period of at least 1 day, depending on size.
In Cold Water
This method is a nice option to have if you want to save time. It’s quicker than using the refrigerator, but still perfectly safe if it’s done properly.
After taking the chicken out of the freezer, make sure it’s tightly wrapped. Fill a container or sink with cold water. The water needs to be colder than 40 degrees, or the meat may spoil before it’s had a chance to fully defrost.
Submerge the wrapped chicken in the water. It should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound, but be sure to swap out the cold water for a fresh batch every half hour. Otherwise, the water—and the chicken—will get too warm.
As soon as the chicken is defrosted, season and cook it at once.
In The Microwave
Although the microwave is considered a safe defrosting method, we’re not huge fans.
For one thing, we try to avoid the microwave in general. It’s fine for heating sauces and melting butter to use as a binder, but it tends to have an adverse effect on meat products.
When it comes to defrosting, there’s another issue: The microwave tends to heat food unevenly. The last thing you want is for the chicken to cook through in patches while the rest of it is still frozen solid.
You can help to stave off this issue by using the defrost setting on your unit. This allows the microwave to run at about 30 to 50 percent power. If yours doesn’t offer this option, it might be possible for you to manually adjust the settings.
Unwrap the chicken before transferring it to a microwave-safe plate or container. Defrost the meat in 2-minute intervals, rotating the plate after each interval. The entire process should take no more than 3 to 5 minutes per pound.
When the meat is defrosted, season and cook it according to your chosen recipe.
How Long Does Defrosted Chicken Keep in the Fridge?
After the chicken has fully defrosted, it will only stay fresh for another day or two at most. Depending on how long it was in the fridge before you froze it, you might not even have that long.
Fresh chicken keeps for 1 to 2 days in the fridge. That’s why we prefer to buy it no more than a day before we’re planning to cook it off. After the second day, it starts to go downhill in terms of quality, and might even spoil.
The sooner you put the chicken in the freezer, the longer you’ll have to cook it off after thawing it. If you wait 2 days before freezing it, you should cook it as soon as possible after it thaws.
Can You Put Defrosted Chicken Back in the Fridge Afterward?
This is an interesting question, because the only time it’s safe to keep chicken in the fridge after defrosting is when you use the refrigerator to thaw it in the first place.
When you defrost chicken using the microwave or a cold water bath, it needs to be cooked off immediately. The meat has already entered the danger zone, and refrigerating it again won’t be enough to destroy any bacteria that may have set up camp as a result.
If you’ve taken the chicken out of the fridge after it’s spent the day defrosting in there, you can season it and then put it back until you’re ready to cook it. Just make sure not to leave it out for any longer than 2 hours.
The Bottom Line
Whenever possible, you should plan ahead when taking chicken out of the freezer. It’s best if you can thaw it in the refrigerator, but if you’re in a rush, using a cold water bath will allow you to get dinner on the table faster.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!