Can you thaw chicken on the counter, or is this method considered unsafe? We’ve all been tempted by the prospect, which is why we’ve decided to address the question once and for all.
Can You Thaw Chicken on the Counter?
Don’t leave chicken out on the counter to thaw. Even if it was frozen to begin with, meat shouldn’t be at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Instead, use a cold water bath to defrost the meat if you’re in a hurry. The microwave will also work if you’re really pressed for time.
Why It’s Important
Have you ever heard of the term “danger zone,” and how it relates to food safety? If not, now is the time to learn.
The danger zone is the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. As you can see, room temperature—which averages 68 to 76 degrees—falls squarely within this range.
At these temperatures, hazardous bacteria are capable of reproducing at a rapid pace. While temps between 33 and 39 degrees will slow bacterial growth, and higher temps kill off the bacteria, the span between 40 and 140 can spell doom for meat products.
Keep your chicken refrigerated as much as possible. It’s fine to bring it to room temperature for 30 minutes or so before you cook it, but don’t let it sit out for longer than 2 hours.
In fact, if the weather is especially warm—90 degrees or more—or if you had to keep the chicken in a hot car for any length of time, you should refrigerate it after just 1 hour. That’s the best way to keep the dangerous bacteria at bay.
Won’t Cooking the Chicken Kill the Bacteria?
As we’ve just pointed out, the bacteria that cause food poisoning start to die off at temperatures exceeding 140 degrees. So doesn’t that mean that when you cook the chicken to a safe temp, you don’t have to worry about the bacteria anymore?
It does—but only if you’ve followed the proper storage and handling techniques. When the bacteria are allowed to multiply like that, they leave behind heat-resistant toxins. That means the chicken won’t be safe to eat, even when it’s thoroughly cooked.
Spoilage bacteria play by a similar set of rules. You wouldn’t expect spoiled chicken to be safe to consume after you’d cooked it to a certain temperature. Though the chicken might still look and smell fine, it can make you sick if it’s been left out for too long.
Can You Thaw Chicken on the Counter?
Unfortunately, while it can be tempting to speed the defrosting process by leaving chicken out on the counter, it’s not a good idea.
It takes time for meat to fully defrost, especially if it’s a larger cut. But the exterior will warm up quickly, spending too much time in the danger zone while you wait for the insides to thaw.
Whether chicken is frozen or thawed—or, for that matter, whether it’s raw or cooked—you should never leave it out on the counter for longer than 2 hours.
Best Methods for Defrosting Chicken
Still in a hurry to defrost that chicken? Fear not—there are safer ways to go about it, and most of them don’t take long.
In the Refrigerator
Though this technique isn’t as quick as the others, it’s our favorite one because it allows the chicken to stay as cold as possible as it thaws.
After taking the chicken out of the freezer, set it on a plate or rimmed baking sheet. Then place it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, pushing it as far back toward the rear as it will go. The plate should catch any juices that leak out of the package.
When you use this method, the chicken should thaw at a rate of 4 to 5 hours for every pound of meat. If you’re only defrosting a couple of chicken breasts for dinner, you might be able to get away with taking them out of the freezer at lunchtime.
It’s preferable to defrost chicken in the fridge overnight, just to be safe. That’s true especially when thawing whole chickens, which might take up to 24 hours to fully defrost.
In Cold Water
If you want to speed the process along—and let’s face it, that’s probably why you’re contemplating thawing chicken on the counter to begin with—try using the cold water method.
Fill a large container with enough cold water to fully submerge the chicken. You can use the kitchen sink for this, assuming it’s big enough to get the job done. Make sure to use cold water—hot water will send the chicken straight into the danger zone.
Place the wrapped chicken in the water bath and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then swap out the water, repeating the process every half hour until the meat is fully thawed. This should take about 30 minutes for each pound of chicken.
You can thaw the chicken unwrapped, but we don’t recommend it, as the meat may become waterlogged. That makes it hard for the skin to crisp up (when this is applicable). This practice is permissible only if you’re brining and thawing the chicken at the same time.
Season and cook the chicken as soon as it’s defrosted.
In the Microwave
The microwave will work in a pinch, but we try to stay away from it, especially when defrosting whole chickens. The meat might start to cook through in places instead of merely defrosting, which yields unpleasant results.
If you’d like to try defrosting chicken in the microwave, check to see if yours has a defrost setting. This allows the unit to run using lower power, so it thaws the meat more evenly. Alternatively, you can set the microwave to run at 30-50 percent power yourself.
Place the unwrapped chicken in a microwave-safe container. Zap it in 2-minute intervals, stopping to rotate the meat after each one. The entire process should take 3 to 5 minutes for each pound of meat. When the chicken is thawed, season and cook it as desired.
How Long Can Defrosted Chicken Stay in the Fridge?
First of all, know that you can only store defrosted chicken in the refrigerator if you thawed it there to begin with. Chicken that’s been defrosted in cold water or in the microwave needs to be cooked off right away.
If you are keeping the defrosted chicken in the fridge, you’ll only have a day or two to cook it before it starts to go downhill in terms of quality. Fresh raw chicken only keeps for 1 to 2 days, and any bacterial growth will pick up again as soon as it’s thawed.
How Long To Store Chicken in the Freezer
Although chicken won’t go bad as long as it’s kept in the freezer, it will start to dry out if you keep it in there long enough. Chicken that’s stored in the freezer for longer than a year might even start to turn an unpleasant gray color.
Smaller cuts, such as breasts and thighs, should be thawed and cooked off within 6 months. Whole chickens can handle up to a year of freezer storage, but try not to wait any longer than that.
Cooked chicken will dry out even faster, owing to the fact that it’s already lost plenty of moisture through exposure to the heat. Thaw and reheat any leftovers within 2 to 3 months.
You can leave chicken out on the counter for up to 2 hours if you must, but any longer, and you’re pushing your luck to the breaking point.
Most cuts will take several hours to thaw, even at room temperature, so this method isn’t considered safe. Look on the bright side, though—there are other safe methods that are just as effective, if not more so.