Because chicken thighs are capable of remaining tender and succulent even when cooked at high temperatures, they’re ideal for grilling. But what if you need to get dinner on the table and you’ve forgotten to thaw the meat beforehand? In this guide, we’ll teach you how to grill frozen chicken thighs in a safe and timely fashion.
Why Thawing is The Best Approach
If you can, try to pull the chicken thighs from the freezer the day before you plan to cook them. When you cook frozen meat, there’s always a chance that the insides won’t get hot enough to cook through, which could lead to food poisoning. The risk is even greater if the meat is still on the bone.
In addition to the health risks involved, when you grill frozen chicken thighs, the skin might stick to the cooking grates. This isn’t a serious problem, but it does have aesthetic disadvantages.
Thawing the meat in the refrigerator will always yield the best results, as the cool temperatures will prevent bacteria from taking up residence. This method usually takes about 24 hours, but boneless thighs might thaw in less time.
Alternatively, you can defrost the chicken thighs in the sink or on the kitchen counter. Just don’t leave them at room temperature for longer than 6 hours, and always keep them tightly wrapped as they thaw.
Cool water thawing is another option. Place the well-wrapped frozen chicken in a large stainless steel bowl, then fill the bowl with enough cool water to cover the meat. This technique should take about 2 hours for bone-in thighs, or slightly less if they’re boneless.
You can also use a defroster tray. These ridged aluminum pans are designed to warm the chicken to a safe temperature without applying any heat. The best versions are outfitted with drip trays to collect the chicken juices as the meat thaws.
As a last resort, you can use the microwave to thaw the chicken pieces. Just take care not to leave them in the machine too long, or the meat will begin to cook. For best results, set the timer for 1-2 minutes, using the Defrost setting. Rotate the pieces and continue to defrost for 1 minute more.
For a more detailed lecture on thawing chicken meat, take a look at this informational video.
A Word About Grilling Chicken
Some outdoor chefs—particularly beginners—are nervous about the idea of using the grill to prepare chicken at all. This is especially true when it comes to bone-in thighs, which we would recommend over the boneless variety.
It’s easy to overcook chicken breasts or tenderloins that have been pounded flat, and just as easy to undercook larger pieces without realizing it. Consuming undercooked chicken isn’t just unappetizing—it can be downright dangerous, since the raw meat may contain salmonella or other food-borne bacteria. Given these risks, it’s not surprising that people would be apprehensive about firing up the grill.
However, while grilling chicken does require a degree of finesse, it’s possible to achieve delectable results even if you haven’t had much practice. Most of the points we’ll outline below should come in handy when preparing thawed chicken as well.
About Grilled Chicken
Chicken is a tasty and versatile ingredient that pairs well with just about any flavor you can think of. As a bonus, it’s usually easy to get children to eat chicken in some form or another. That’s what makes it such a popular menu item.
In addition to being a good source of protein, chicken contains the amino acid tryptophan, which can help regulate serotonin levels in the brain. In short, adding chicken to your diet may put you in a better mood. The meat is also high in choline and vitamin B12, a combination that aids brain development and cognitive function.
Chicken is also a heart-healthy option, being naturally low in fat and cholesterol. While the bone-in, skin-on variety contains more calories and fat than skinless chicken, it’s still useful when it comes to regulating blood sugar. Since stable blood sugar levels are the key to maintaining healthy weight, chicken consumption can be considered a handy dietary tool as well.
Benefits of Grilling Frozen Chicken Thighs
There are plenty of benefits to grilling frozen chicken thighs as well. When you grill, the excess grease from the food drips beneath the cooking grates, thereby distancing itself from the food. Frozen meat contains a great deal of moisture, so this process will help prevent the meat from turning soggy or tough.
Grilling also helps the chicken retain more nutrients than frying or sauteing. The key is to use the right temperature during each step of the cooking process. Properly grilled chicken will be moist and tender throughout.
How To Grill Frozen Chicken Thighs
Now that we’ve established that you should work with defrosted meat whenever you can, let’s talk about what happens when you have no other options. The following tips will help you turn out juicy, appetizing chicken thighs even if they were frozen when you began cooking.
Preheat the Grill
Whenever I use the grill, I always allow the cooking grates to heat up for 5-10 minutes before adding the food. Not only does this allow the ingredients to sear properly, it keeps them from sticking to the grates. Skin-on chicken thighs are particularly prone to sticking, especially as they thaw.
When you first add the chicken to the grill, the heat should be kept low. It’s also preferable to prepare a two-zone fire so the ingredients can be placed on the cooler half of the grill. Cooking the meat over indirect heat will simulate the thawing process, allowing the chicken to reach a safe internal temperature by the time it’s finished cooking.
Always place frozen chicken thighs on the grill with the skin side facing down. If you’re worried that the skin will stick to the cooking grates, coat the grill grates with neutral oil beforehand. This is good advice to follow even when you’re working with thawed ingredients.
Once the meat has had a chance to thaw on the grill, move the pieces to direct heat to finish cooking. During this time, the chicken thighs should attain a deep golden color and crisp skin (unless you’ve chosen to grill the boneless and skinless variety).
If you ignore this advice, your chicken thighs might be charred to perfection on the outside, but the interior could still be frozen—or at the very least, too raw to consume. Chicken is considered safe to eat once the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Building a Two-Zone Fire
How exactly do you create a two-zone fire? If you’ve never used this technique before, it’s time you learned the basics.
Using a Charcoal Grill
To build a two-zone fire in a charcoal grill, remove the cooking grate. Then use a chimney starter to light a batch of coals. When the charcoal is coated in a thin layer of gray ash, it’s ready to be added to the grill.
Carefully dump the coals into the cooking chamber so that they’re piled high on one side, leaving the other half empty. Replace the cooking grate and scrub it clean with a wire brush, then replace the lid.
Wait 5-10 minutes, then remove the lid again. Carefully apply a thin layer of neutral oil to the cooking grate using a wad of paper towels. Add the frozen chicken thighs to the side of the grill that’s free of coals for the initial stage of the cooking process.
Using a Gas Grill
If you have a gas-powered unit, your job just got a lot easier. Simply fire up the burners on one half of the grill and don’t touch the knobs on the other side. Close the lid and allow the grates to heat up for about 5 minutes before adding the chicken thighs to the cooler side.
For larger gas grills, you can turn the two outside burners to medium and leave the center burner turned off. This will give you more freedom of movement when it’s time to transfer the chicken to the direct heat.
Give it Time
We get it—you’re grilling the chicken while it’s still frozen because you don’t have time to wait for them to thaw. That’s all well and good, but you should still allow for some extra time.
The whole process of thawing the meat over the indirect heat zone will increase your total cooking time by about 50 percent if you’ve done it properly. Therefore, if it usually takes you 20 minutes to grill chicken thighs, it will take you about 30 minutes when you start with frozen meat.
Close the Lid
Grill the frozen thighs skin-side down for about 5 minutes, then flip them over and close the lid. Wait another 5 minutes before checking their progress and moving them to the direct-heat segment of the grill.
Don’t Forget the Dressing
For a boost of flavor, try tossing the frozen thighs in a vinegar-based salad dressing before adding them to the grill. I like to use a simple Italian version, but Greek dressing and balsamic vinaigrette will work just as well.
After coating the thighs in the dressing, apply a seasoning rub. It’s best to use ingredients that work with the flavor profile of the dressing. For example, if you use Italian dressing, try a spice rub that contains oregano and garlic powder. Don’t forget the kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Try the Pellet Grill
Using a pellet grill or smoker allows you greater control over the temperature, which is essential when grilling frozen chicken thighs. We would recommend investing in one of these models the next time you’re ready to upgrade to a new unit.
Be forewarned that this method takes a while, but not as long as it would take to thaw the meat on the counter. Once the pellet grill has had a chance to heat up, the chicken should be ready in about 90 minutes.
To begin, preheat the pellet smoker to 275 degrees. Prepare the chicken thighs according to your designated recipe. You can also follow the directions outlined in Don’t Forget the Dressing, above.
When the grill has heated to 275 degrees, add the frozen chicken thighs. Set a timer for 30 minutes and let the smoker do its work.
After 30 minutes, take a look at the chicken thighs. They should be completely thawed and warm to the touch. At this point, you can remove them from the grill and dip them in the dressing or sauce a second time, if desired. When they’re ready to go back on the grill, set the timer for an additional 30 minutes and allow them to keep cooking at the same low temperature.
Next, raise the temperature to the pellet grill’s highest setting. This is usually in the 450-500 degree range, but some models might go even higher. Cook the chicken for another 15 minutes as the temperature rises.
Remove the chicken thighs from the smoker. If you’d like, you can douse them in sauce and return them to the grill for an additional 10 minutes. If you prefer your chicken thighs on the crispy side, leave them in for another 10-15 minutes regardless of whether or not you’ve added a sauce.
What To Do With Leftovers
If you have any meat left over, you can use it in any recipe that calls for cooked chicken. Shred it and use it as a taco or burrito filling, or mix it with mayonnaise and tarragon for a delicious chicken salad.
Personally, I think grilled chicken thighs are particularly lovely when tossed with fettuccine Alfredo. The smoky flavor of the meat pairs beautifully with the creamy sauce.
Knowing how to grill frozen chicken thighs is a useful trick to have in your repertoire, but it’s no substitute for good planning. In the future, try to thaw the chicken in the refrigerator beforehand. In addition to being healthier, the meat will be much easier to cook, so you don’t have to spend the entire evening hovering over the grill.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!