When we opt to thaw chicken in a cold water bath, we make sure it’s tightly wrapped. That’s how we’ve always done it, and it seems to work fine. But is defrosting chicken in water unwrapped a suitable method? Let’s find out.
Defrosting Chicken in Water Unwrapped
When defrosting chicken in cold water, try to keep it tightly wrapped. Leaving it unwrapped will contaminate the water, which could lead to food-borne illness if it’s allowed to spread around the kitchen. If water does leak into the package, be sure to dry the chicken thoroughly before you cook it.
Defrosting Safety 101
Keeping meat frozen is an ideal way to ensure that it won’t spoil while you wait for the best time to prepare it. In fact, chicken can keep in the freezer indefinitely—at least in theory.
In practice, it’s better to defrost meat within a few months to a year, depending on the size of the cut. Whole chickens might be able to withstand a whole year at temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but boneless skinless breast halves will start to dry out after 2 to 3 months.
When you’re defrosting the meat, you need to ensure that it remains at a temperature below 40 degrees the entire time. If the chicken strays into the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees, hazardous bacteria will begin to set up camp there.
Meat products, including chicken, shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the danger zone for longer than 2 hours. If the weather outside is especially hot, that window shortens to just 1 hour.
Is Defrosting Chicken in Water Unwrapped a Suitable Method?
We don’t recommend defrosting chicken in water unwrapped. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First of all, the chicken may become waterlogged if it isn’t tightly wrapped. This may affect the texture of the meat once it’s cooked. While the meat will still be safe to eat, the excess water won’t do it any favors.
While soaking chicken in a brine mixture can improve its texture, plain water doesn’t have the same effect. It’s the salt in the brine that helps the chicken retain moisture as it cooks, not the water itself.
It’s also more sanitary to keep the chicken wrapped during the thaw. Raw chicken can spread bacteria around the kitchen, even if it remains at a safe temperature the entire time. That risk would increase if you were to put unwrapped chicken in a bowl of water.
If you do notice that water has seeped into the package, there’s no need to panic. Just dry the chicken and season it as you normally would. Also, be sure to disinfect the sink or container immediately after discarding the water.
How To Thaw Chicken in Cold Water
To begin, take the chicken out of the freezer and place it in a sturdy zip-top bag. Fill a container or the sink with enough cold water to cover the chicken completely. If the chicken isn’t fully submerged, you’ll need to rotate it regularly.
Once you’ve submerged the chicken in the water bath, it should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. A 6-pound chicken can be ready for the grill or smoker within 3 hours.
Be sure to swap out the water every 30 minutes so that it remains nice and cold. The thawing environment should never exceed 39 degrees. That’s one reason why you should never attempt to thaw meat using warm or hot water.
When the chicken is fully defrosted, season and prepare it as necessary. You’ll need to cook it within an hour or so, or it may become a breeding ground for bacteria.
Other Methods For Defrosting
If you have enough time, thaw chicken in the refrigerator. It should take 4 to 5 hours for every pound of meat, which means a 6-pound chicken can be ready to cook in a day or so.
Keep the wrapped chicken on a rimmed baking sheet or platter with sides high enough to catch any juices that may leak out of the package. Store it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, toward the rear.
This is our preferred method for defrosting all meat products, mainly because it’s so carefree. It also ensures that the meat will stay at a safe temperature until you’re ready to cook, assuming the fridge is set to a temp between 33 and 38 degrees.
You’ll also have a day or two to cook the chicken once you’ve defrosted it in the fridge. With the cold water or microwave methods, you need to cook it at once.
When you’re really pressed for time, the microwave is a suitable shortcut. We’re not big fans of the technique because it can cause the meat to cook through instead of merely defrosting, but it’s fine as a last resort.
First, check to see if your microwave has a defrost setting. This will allow it to run at 25 to 30 percent power. If yours doesn’t have one, you can adjust the settings manually so that the unit is running at a lower power level.
You’ll need to remove the chicken from its packaging and set it on a microwave-safe plate. Again, the sides of this container should be high enough to catch any juices.
Defrost the chicken in 2-minute increments, rotating after each session, until the meat is fully thawed. This will take about 2 minutes per pound, so a 6-pound chicken will be ready to cook in about 12 minutes.
If you notice that the chicken is turning white and opaque in patches, halt the defrosting process. This means the meat is cooking through in those spots and will be too dry if you continue.
As soon as the chicken is defrosted, season and cook it immediately.
Can You Cook Chicken Without Defrosting It?
Whenever possible, we prefer to take the time to defrost meat before cooking it. Taking this step allows the seasoning to adhere better. It also promotes even cooking.
What many folks don’t realize, however, is that you can cook meat—including chicken—without thawing it out beforehand. It isn’t unsafe to do so—it will just take more time for the meat to reach the optimal temperature.
Cooking meat from a frozen state takes about 50 percent longer than it would if you’d defrosted it. That means a chicken breast that would ordinarily cook through in 10 to 12 minutes will take 15 to 18 minutes instead.
What if the chicken is partially thawed, but still frozen in a few spots? In this case, the process should take 25 percent longer. That same chicken breast that would have cooked through in 10 to 12 minutes will have a total cooking time of 13 to 15 minutes.
While cooking chicken from frozen works fine with smaller cuts, it becomes more problematic if you’re dealing with whole birds. For whole chickens, it’s probably better to use the cold water method, or at least partially defrost the bird in the microwave.
The Bottom Line
Although defrosting chicken in water unwrapped won’t do the meat itself any real harm, we don’t recommend it. Waterlogged chicken is seldom appetizing. What’s more, you’ll run the risk of spreading bacteria around your work area.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!