Once you’ve taken the chicken out of the freezer to thaw, is it safe to put it back in even if it’s partially defrosted? Or do you need to cook the meat off before refreezing it? Read on to find out if this practice is safe or hazardous.
Can You Refreeze Partially Thawed Chicken?
You can refreeze meat that’s been partially or fully thawed without cooking it first. Be forewarned, though, that defrosting and refreezing can cause meat to dry out. Try not to refreeze the chicken more than once, and avoid overcooking it so you can ensure that it remains as moist as possible.
A Word About Food Safety
You need to be careful when thawing and refreezing meat because bacteria thrive at certain temperatures.
When you store meat at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, all bacterial growth is halted. That’s why you can keep it in the freezer indefinitely—at least in theory.
In truth, it’s better to thaw raw meat within 6 months to a year, depending on how large the cut is. Otherwise, it might lose moisture due to the long storage process.
Once meat is cooked, it loses moisture anyway, so these products should be thawed even sooner. If you’re storing cooked chicken in the freezer, try to thaw and enjoy it within 2 to 3 months.
When meat is thawed and stored in the refrigerator, bacterial growth will start up again, although keeping it at a temperature below 40 degrees will slow the process. You should have 2 to 3 days to cook the chicken before it starts to go bad.
At temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, the types of bacteria that you’re trying to avoid will be able to breed at a rapid pace. You should never leave meat out on the counter for longer than 2 hours, whether it’s frozen solid or completely thawed.
Can You Refreeze Partially Thawed Chicken?
Let’s say you’ve taken the chicken out of the freezer to thaw, but then your plans change and you won’t be able to cook it after all. Can you put it back in the freezer, or is it too late?
For a long time, we believed that it was unsafe to refreeze chicken—or any meat—that had already thawed. Even if it was only partially defrosted, we would continue the process rather than risk food poisoning by putting it back in the freezer.
In truth, it’s perfectly safe to refreeze partially thawed chicken. You can even refreeze meat that’s completely thawed. As long as you follow the proper protocol for storage and handling, you shouldn’t have to worry.
It’s important to note, however, that you can only refreeze meat that’s been thawed in the refrigerator. If you thaw it in cold water or the microwave as described in the sections below, you have to cook it off right away.
Also, note that while the process won’t do any harm, repeated thawing and refreezing can cause the chicken to dry out. Try not to refreeze any meat product more than once.
How To Safely Defrost Chicken
The Refrigerator Method
The safest way to defrost chicken is to keep it in the refrigerator. That way, you can rest assured that the meat has been stored at a safe temperature below 40 degrees the entire time.
Before getting started, make sure your fridge is set at the right temperature. The range between 33 and 38 degrees is ideal. Also, clear a space on the lower shelf. That’s the best place to keep meat that’s being defrosted, as it will stay nice and cold.
Set the chicken on a rimmed platter after taking it out of the freezer. That way, any juices that might leak out of the package will be contained instead of spilling all over the fridge. That’s another reason why it’s best to keep it on a lower shelf.
Store the platter toward the rear of the fridge until the chicken is defrosted. This typically takes about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat. If you’re just thawing a pound or two of chicken breast or thigh meat, it could be thawed in about 12 hours.
Once the chicken is defrosted, you’ll have 1 to 3 days to cook it off, depending on how long it was in the fridge before you froze it. If you put it in the freezer right away, it should stay fresh for up to 3 days.
The Cold Water Bath
As we pointed out, you have to cook the chicken right away if you thaw it using this method. Since portions of the meat might have been hanging around in the danger zone for a while, the only way to be safe is to cook it to an internal temp of 165 degrees.
Be aware that you should never thaw chicken in warm or hot water. While you would think that this would speed the process along, it’s actually a dangerous practice. The chicken needs to stay at a temperature below 40 degrees for as long as possible.
Fill a sink or large container with enough cold water to submerge the chicken. Make sure the meat is tightly wrapped before you add it to the water bath. If necessary, add another layer of plastic wrap—or better yet, a sturdy zip-top bag.
Submerge the chicken in the cold water. It should thaw at a rate of 30 minutes per pound, so smaller cuts can be ready to cook in no time. For larger cuts or whole chickens, swap out the water every 30 minutes to ensure that it stays cold enough.
Once the chicken is thawed, season and cook it as desired.
Can you use the microwave to thaw chicken? It’s acceptable, but it’s not our first choice.
Microwaves can heat food unevenly, so portions of the meat might actually be cooking while others remain frozen. This is a recipe for disaster.
If you have no choice but to use the microwave, check to see if your unit has a defrost setting. If it doesn’t, adjust the settings so that the machine is running at 25 to 30 percent power. That’s essentially what the defrost setting does anyway.
After placing the chicken in a microwave-safe container and setting it in the microwave, set the timer for 2 minutes. Continue to defrost the meat in 2-minute intervals, rotating it every time the timer goes off. The total process should take 2 minutes per pound.
Again, chicken that’s been defrosted in the microwave needs to be cooked off immediately. We would also recommend saving this technique for smaller cuts, as it’s not particularly effective with whole chickens.
Can You Cook Partially Thawed Chicken?
Now that we’ve determined that it’s safe to refreeze partially thawed chicken, let’s talk about whether safe to cook it while parts of it are still frozen.
As you can imagine, it will take longer to cook chicken that hasn’t had a chance to fully defrost. But other than the lost time, the process won’t do any harm.
If you opt to cook meat that’s only partially defrosted, expect the total cooking process to take roughly 25 percent longer than usual. For example, if it usually takes 10 minutes for your chicken breasts to cook through, it should take 12 to 13 minutes if they weren’t fully thawed.
What if the meat is still completely frozen when you start cooking it? In this case, the process should take about 50 percent longer. Therefore, those grilled chicken breasts that usually take 10 minutes will take at least 15 minutes to cook through.
While it’s not a big deal when dealing with smaller cuts, it can be a pain to cook whole chickens from a frozen state. That’s why we would recommend thawing larger cuts at least partially before cooking them. A cold water bath is a good bet in these cases.
Also, be forewarned that spices will have a hard time sticking to meat that’s still frozen. You might need to wait until the chicken has had a chance to heat up a bit before you add any seasoning.
The Bottom Line
If you’re not going to be able to cook that chicken as planned, go ahead and put it back in the freezer for a later date. The meat might be a bit drier than it would have been otherwise, but you can offset this by using the right preparation technique.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!