It’s preferable to thaw meat before cooking it. This technique allows for more control over the process, as you’re better able to predict how long the meat will take to finish cooking.
But what if you’re planning on smoking a whole chicken, and you’ve forgotten to take it out of the freezer? Can you thaw chicken in hot water to speed things along?
Can You Thaw Chicken in Hot Water?
It isn’t safe to thaw chicken in hot water. The meat will spend too long in the hazardous zone between 40 and 140 degrees, which allows bacteria to multiply quickly. It’s preferable to use the refrigerator for thawing meat, but you can speed things up by submerging the chicken in cold water for about 30 minutes per pound.
Why It’s Important
Safe thawing practices are vital components of the cooking process. The internal temperature of the meat needs to be monitored to avoid the risk of food poisoning. Here’s how that works.
When meat is held at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, any bacterial growth is halted. That’s why meat can be kept in the freezer indefinitely, at least in theory.
At temperatures below 40 degrees, the bacterial growth slows down, enough to allow you to store meat products in the fridge for a few days. While the meat would go bad eventually, keeping it in the fridge will allow it to stay fresh for a longer period.
On the other end of the spectrum, the hazardous bacteria that could potentially have taken up residence on the surface of the meat start to die off at temps exceeding 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why you should cook meat products before consuming them.
In that window between 40 and 140 degrees, bacteria can multiply at a rapid pace. If you leave meat out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, it won’t be safe to eat anymore. That’s true whether the meat was cooked or still raw when you left it out.
Does Cooking Chicken Destroy Bacteria?
Cooking meat will destroy any of the potentially harmful bacteria that were there when the meat was fresh. But if the meat was in the danger zone for too long, you can’t save it by cooking it off.
When chicken spends longer than 2 hours in the danger zone, the bacteria can create heat-resistant toxins. At this point, heating the meat past 140 degrees won’t reverse the damage. Your only option is to discard the chicken.
Be aware that this 2-hour window shortens to 1 hour when the ambient temperature exceeds 90 degrees. On especially hot days, be sure to take meat out of the fridge no more than one hour before you start to cook, and refrigerate all leftovers promptly.
Can You Thaw Chicken in Hot Water?
No. In fact, it’s unsafe to thaw any meat using hot water, for the reasons we’ve described above. While it might seem counterproductive to thaw chicken using cold water, it’s the only way to make sure the meat stays at a safe temperature.
If you were to immerse the chicken in hot water, the meat on the surface would enter the danger zone right away. The rest of it, meanwhile, would remain frozen until the water could do its work. That could take several hours, depending on the size of the bird.
In fact, you might need to change out the cold water at least once while you’re thawing the chicken. The water should never be allowed to warm up to room temperature. The goal is to keep the chicken below 40 degrees for the duration of the thaw.
Can You Thaw Chicken on the Counter?
Remember when we said you can’t leave meat out at room temperature for longer than an hour or two? That rule applies whether the meat was frozen to begin with or not.
Even if the chicken is frozen solid, it’s still in the danger zone as soon as you set it out on the counter. While the inside might still be at a safe temperature when you’re ready to start cooking, the exterior will have warmed to a hazardous degree.
To ensure that the chicken will still be safe to consume, use one of the thawing methods we’ve described in the section below.
How To Thaw Chicken
In The Refrigerator
This is the best method of them all. It requires very little effort, just a bit of advance planning. Assuming your refrigerator is set to a temperature below 40 degrees, it will keep the chicken out of the danger zone until it’s time to cook it.
In the fridge, meat generally thaws at a rate of 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. A whole chicken should be ready to cook just a day after you take it out of the freezer. Larger specimens might require a little more time, so be sure to check the label.
Set the chicken on a rimmed platter that’s large enough to catch any juices that might leak out of the package. Then place it in the fridge, preferably on the bottom shelf toward the rear. When it’s fully defrosted, season and cook as desired.
It’s best to cook the chicken off within 1 or 2 days after thawing. If you need to wait any longer, we suggest putting it back in the freezer. This won’t do the meat any harm, but repeated thawing and refreezing could give it a drier texture.
In a Cold Water Bath
Since you’re considering thawing the chicken in hot water, chances are you don’t have a lot of time to work with. If this is the case, try using the cold water method instead.
Before you begin, understand that you’ll have to cook the chicken off immediately when you thaw it in cold water. It isn’t safe to save the thawed meat for later. That’s another reason why we prefer the refrigerator method.
Make sure the chicken is wrapped tightly. No water should be permitted to leak into the package. If necessary, you can put it in a sturdy zip-top bag before you submerge it.
Find a container large enough to hold the chicken, plus enough water to fully submerge the meat. Depending on the size of the chicken, you may be able to use the sink.
Fill the container or sink with cold water and set the wrapped chicken inside. The meat should thaw at a rate of 30 minutes per pound, meaning a whole chicken should take 2 to 3 hours to thaw.
As we mentioned, it’s a good idea to swap out the water every 30 minutes to ensure that it stays nice and cold. If you’re only thawing a couple of boneless chicken breasts, this may not be necessary, as the meat might already be finished defrosting at this point.
In The Microwave
As a last resort, you can use the microwave to defrost a frozen chicken.
We aren’t fans of this technique, especially for larger cuts. Some parts of the chicken might be fully thawed and beginning to cook through while the rest remains frozen. But as long as you’re careful, you can use the microwave if you have no other option.
To start, unwrap the chicken and set it in a microwave-safe dish. It’s important not to leave any plastic wrap on the meat, or it will melt and ruin the chicken.
Check to find out if your microwave has a defrost setting. If it does, select it now. Otherwise, change the unit’s settings so that it’s running at 25 to 30 percent power.
Place the chicken inside and defrost for 2 minutes per pound, halting the process every minute or two so you can rotate the meat. As is the case with the cold water method, you’ll need to season and cook the chicken as soon as it’s finished defrosting.
What If The Chicken Is Already Cooked?
Can you thaw chicken in hot water if it’s already cooked? Unfortunately, the method is just as unsafe in this case.
For rapid thawing of cooked leftovers, submerge the wrapped meat in cold water, as suggested above. The process shouldn’t take too long, especially if you’ve portioned out the meat before freezing it.
Alternatively, you don’t have to thaw the meat at all. Just reheat the leftovers as you originally planned. It might take a little bit longer for the chicken to heat up, but it won’t do any harm.
Can You Cook Chicken When It’s Still Frozen?
On a similar note, we should point out that you don’t need to thaw raw chicken before cooking it, either. Frozen meat takes longer to cook through, but as long as it doesn’t spend too long in the danger zone, it will be safe to eat.
This technique works better with smaller cuts that cook through quickly anyway. If you’re smoking a whole chicken, it’s preferable to thaw it in cold water first. It won’t take that much longer to defrost it this way than it would to cook it from a frozen state.
The Bottom Line
Always use cold water when thawing meat products. Using hot water won’t speed things along—in fact, it could lead to serious illness. Cutting corners is seldom a good idea, but when it comes to food safety, it could be a fatal error.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!