There are numerous rules and guidelines for safe defrosting, and you want to follow them to the letter—especially when it comes to raw poultry products. Can you put defrosted chicken back in the fridge, or do you need to cook it right away? Let’s find out.
Can You Put Defrosted Chicken Back in the Fridge?
It’s only safe to put defrosted chicken back in the fridge if you used the fridge as a defrosting method to begin with. Once the meat has been thawed in a cold water bath or the microwave, it needs to start cooking within an hour or two, tops. Otherwise, it won’t be safe to eat.
Why It Matters
Raw poultry doesn’t have a very long shelf life. While you can store most cuts of beef and pork in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days, it’s best to cook chicken off within 2 days of bringing it home.
The longer the chicken stays in the fridge, the more opportunities there are for spoilage bacteria to set up camp. These bacteria won’t necessarily cause food poisoning, but they’ll give the meat an unpleasant taste and texture.
Freezing chicken prolongs its shelf life by halting the growth of bacteria. When you store meat at a temp below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, it won’t spoil. It might dry out if it stays in the freezer too long, but it will still be safe to consume.
The trouble is, once you take the meat out of the freezer again, that bacterial growth picks back up again. That means you might not have much time between the initial defrosting period and the decline in quality that will inevitably occur.
Can You Put Defrosted Chicken Back in the Fridge?
The answer to that depends on the method you used to defrost it.
If you’ve kept the chicken cold—that is, at a temp below 40 degrees—the entire time, then it’s safe to take it out of the fridge for awhile and then put it back. This might be the case if you want to season, marinate, or brine the chicken for awhile before cooking it.
On the other hand, if you’ve used the cold water or microwave method for defrosting (we’ll cover those in the section below), you shouldn’t put the chicken back in the fridge. That’s because at this point, it may have already entered the “danger zone.”
The danger zone is the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees. Within this range, the type of bacteria that cause serious illness are capable of breeding at a rapid pace. Leaving meat in this zone for too long can render it unsafe for consumption.
Keep chicken refrigerated until you’re ready to season or cook it. If you’re employing a brine or a marinade, it should be refrigerated again as soon as you put it in the mixture.
The meat should never be allowed to stay at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. If it’s been left in a hot car on the way home from the grocery store, or if the temperature outside exceeds 80 degrees, make sure to refrigerate it within 1 hour.
Defrosting Chicken: 3 Easy Methods
Method #1: In the Refrigerator
If you’re wondering whether you can put thawed chicken back in the fridge, know that it’s only safe to do so when you use this method. That’s one of the reasons why we prefer to thaw chicken and other meat products in the fridge.
You’ll need to plan ahead if you want to use the refrigerator method. The defrosting process takes about 4 to 5 hours for every pound of meat. Depending on which cuts you’re dealing with, you may want to take the chicken out of the freezer a day in advance.
Clear a generous amount of space on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator—preferably toward the back. This is the coldest spot in the fridge, and storing meat on the bottom ensures that the juices won’t drip down and contaminate any other food items.
After making sure that your refrigerator’s temperature is set below 40 degrees, take the chicken out of the freezer and set it on a rimmed platter or baking sheet. Slide the platter into place and close the refrigerator door, taking care only to open it when necessary.
When the chicken is fully defrosted, pat it dry with paper towels, then season and cook as planned.
Method #2: In Cold Water
This is a faster method, working at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. That makes it preferable when you’re in a hurry, but bear in mind that you won’t be able to refrigerate the chicken again after the cold water has done its work.
Remember that the water needs to be cold. It might seem counterproductive to use cold water when your goal is to thaw out the meat, but hot water will warm up the surface flesh too quickly, taking it right into the danger zone while the center is still frozen.
Keep the chicken tightly wrapped during the defrosting process. While you can brine frozen chicken unwrapped and allow it to defrost in the mixture, plain water won’t have the same effect as the saltwater solution.
If your sink is large enough to accommodate the amount of chicken you’re defrosting, you can use it for this method. Otherwise, you’ll need to find a container that can hold all of the meat, plus enough water to cover it completely.
Fill the sink or container with cold water, then submerge the wrapped chicken. Swap out the water for a fresh cold batch every 30 minutes or so until the meat is thawed. Smaller cuts like breast and tenderloin might be ready to cook in less than an hour.
Unwrap the chicken and pat it dry with paper towels before seasoning and cooking as desired.
Method #3: In the Microwave
We’ve listed this method last because we don’t like to use it unless we have no other choice. Not only will you have to cook the chicken immediately, but you’re risking uneven thawing by using the microwave, especially for larger cuts.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that this is the fastest technique available if you want to start with defrosted meat (see Can You Cook Chicken From a Frozen State?, below. So if you’re really pressed for time, it should work fine—as long as you’re careful.
First, check to see if your microwave offers a defrost setting. This will allow the unit to run at around 30 to 50 percent power, so the meat will thaw instead of cooking through. If there isn’t one, you can adjust the settings accordingly on your own.
Unwrap the chicken and place it in a microwave-safe container. Avoid plastic that’s labeled with the numbers 3, 6, or 7.
Place the chicken inside the microwave and set the timer for 2 minutes. After the first 2 minutes are up, rotate the chicken and continue to defrost at 2-minute intervals until the meat is completely thawed.
Season and cook the meat as soon as it’s ready.
How Long Can Defrosted Chicken Stay in the Fridge?
As we pointed out before, chicken will only stay fresh in the fridge for 1 to 2 days. Those rules apply whether or not the meat was frozen in the interim.
For example, if you put the chicken in the freezer as soon as you bought it, it should keep in the fridge for 2 days after it’s thawed. If you waited 2 days before freezing it, you’ll be lucky if the meat doesn’t start to deteriorate within a day of defrosting.
The takeaway? Freeze the meat as soon as you know you won’t be able to cook it off within a day or two, then cook it as soon as it thaws.
Can You Refreeze Defrosted Chicken?
Only if you defrosted it in the refrigerator—and if you do so within a day or so of defrosting it. Otherwise, you might find that the meat has already spoiled when it’s time to thaw it again.
Be forewarned that the chicken might have a drier texture if it’s been thawed and refrozen multiple times. This is especially true of chicken breast, which dries out quickly anyway.
Can You Cook Chicken from a Frozen State?
Don’t want to take the time to defrost? You can start the cooking process while the meat is still frozen.
Obviously, it’s preferable to reserve this technique for smaller cuts that cook through quickly in the first place. For whole chickens and bone-in breasts, it’s usually better to thaw them in cold water beforehand, even if they don’t have a chance to defrost completely.
The Bottom Line
It’s our custom to cook chicken off as soon as we can. That’s the best way to ensure food safety—not to mention optimum taste and texture. But if you do freeze the chicken, the refrigerator is the safest defrosting method.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!