Freezing chicken is the perfect way to preserve it for a later date. The question is, how long does it take to defrost chicken safely? And how long can you keep it in the freezer to begin with?
How Long Does it Take To Defrost Chicken?
When defrosted in the refrigerator, chicken thaws at a rate of around 4 to 5 hours per pound. To speed things along, you can use a cold water bath, which gets the job done in about 30 minutes for each pound of chicken. The microwave is even faster, but it may yield uneven results. It’s not considered safe to thaw chicken at room temperature.
How Long Can You Store Chicken in the Freezer?
When you freeze meat at temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, any bacterial growth is halted. While this means the meat won’t technically spoil, it will begin to dry out if it’s in the freezer too long.
The larger the cut, the longer it can stay frozen without suffering any ill effects. A whole chicken might be able to handle a year in the freezer, but it’s preferable to thaw and cook it off within 6 months.
Smaller bone-in cuts should be stored in the freezer for no longer than 4 to 6 months, while boneless breasts and tenderloin are best when thawed within 3 months. Again, these are just guidelines—keeping them frozen longer won’t do any real harm.
If you cooked the chicken before freezing it, the meat will dry out even faster. Try not to keep frozen leftovers around for longer than 2 to 3 months.
How Long Does it Take To Defrost Chicken in the Fridge?
Whenever possible, we prefer to defrost chicken in the refrigerator. Although it requires a bit of advance planning, it’s the only way to make sure the meat stays at a safe temperature for the entire duration of the thaw.
What does that mean, exactly? It’s simple—meat products should be stored at or below 39 degrees as much as possible. The temperature range between 40 and 140 allows bacteria to grow rapidly, and is known as “the danger zone” as a result.
After taking meat out of the freezer, set it on a rimmed baking sheet or large platter. Place in the fridge, preferably on a lower shelf, toward the back. That way, it shouldn’t be affected by any warm gusts of air from the open door.
When kept in the fridge, chicken should defrost at a rate of about 4 to 5 hours for each pound of meat. A whole chicken weighing 5 pounds could need an entire day in the refrigerator, while a 1-pound package of breasts might be ready to cook in just 4 hours.
Once it’s thawed, raw chicken should keep in the fridge for 1 to 2 days. If you waited a couple of days before freezing it, it’s better to cook the meat off as soon as it’s finished defrosting.
How Long Does it Take To Defrost Chicken in Cold Water?
This is a faster method, but when you use it, you’ll need to cook the chicken right away.
Keep the chicken tightly wrapped and submerge it in cold water. You’ll need a container large enough to accommodate the meat, plus enough water to cover it completely. Depending on which cut you’re thawing, the sink might be your best bet.
When you thaw chicken in cold water, it should defrost at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. For that reason, it’s ideal for smaller cuts like wings and tenderloins. Also, be sure to swap out the cold water every 30 minutes to prevent it from getting too warm.
One final note: Only use cold water. If you attempt to speed the process by using warm or hot water instead, the meat on the surface will thaw too quickly, thereby spending too much time in the danger zone.
How Long Does it Take To Defrost Chicken in the Microwave?
For people in a hurry, the microwave is a safe option for defrosting. We don’t use it on a regular basis because it can yield uneven results, but it will work fine if you don’t have any other choice.
If your microwave has a defrost setting, use it. If it doesn’t, adjust the settings so the unit is running at 30 to 50 percent power. That’s what the defrost setting does, in essence—cuts down on the power so the meat thaws instead of cooking through.
When defrosting in the microwave, you’ll need to remove all the packaging before setting the chicken in a microwave-safe container. If there’s any plastic left on the meat when you start the process, it will melt and ruin the chicken.
Thaw the chicken in 2-minute intervals, stopping to rotate the meat after each one, for about 3 to 5 minutes per pound. Obviously, the process will take more time for larger cuts than smaller ones. In fact, try to avoid using the microwave to thaw whole chickens.
As with the cold water method, you’ll have to cook the meat right away when it’s been defrosted in the microwave. It’s not safe to put it back in the fridge afterward, so make sure you’re ready to begin before you defrost the chicken.
Do Different Cuts Thaw at Different Rates?
Not really. Size plays more of a role than anything when it comes to thawing times. While leaner cuts like the breast and tenderloin will cook through faster than the leg portions, they should thaw at roughly the same pace.
Obviously, bone-in cuts will weigh more than boneless ones, and whole chickens are larger still. Keep the total weight in mind when planning your defrosting technique, but don’t worry about whether the chicken is white or dark meat.
There is one caveat we should mention. In addition to being smaller, chicken wings have more surface area per piece than thighs and wings. So a pound of wings might not take as long to thaw as a 1-pound package of larger cuts, especially when thawed in cold water.
Can You Defrost Chicken on the Counter?
You should never leave chicken out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. If you do, there’s a good chance that the meat is contaminated with bacteria, which leave behind heat-resistant toxins. At that point, even cooking the meat won’t be enough to save it.
Can You Cook Chicken Without Defrosting It?
In fact, you can—but depending on the cut you’re using, it might not be the best idea.
It’s technically safe to cook chicken that hasn’t been thawed yet. The key is to ensure that it climbs out of the danger zone within 4 hours—or sooner, if possible. When it’s still frozen to begin with, it takes longer for the meat to hit the 140-degree mark.
When cooking chicken breasts, wings, thighs, or tenderloin from a frozen state, add about 50 percent to the estimated cooking time. If they were partially thawed, increase your estimate by 25 percent.
We don’t recommend cooking whole chickens without defrosting them. It can be difficult enough for the white and dark meat to reach their respective optimal temperatures at the same time, without adding this variable to the mix.
The larger the cut, the longer it takes to defrost. Fortunately, even whole chickens are on the small side—at least when compared to immense cuts like brisket and whole pork shoulder. If you plan ahead by just a few hours, you should have dinner on the table in a timely fashion.