If you’ve just taken a package of chicken breasts out of the freezer and you want to smoke them, is it permissible to do so without thawing the meat first? Or do you need to wait until the meat is fully defrosted before you start to cook?
The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Our guide to smoking frozen chicken breast will tell you all you need to know.
Smoking Frozen Chicken Breast
Smoking frozen chicken breast takes about 50 percent longer than it would if you’d defrosted the meat beforehand. If the chicken is only partially frozen, the process takes about 25 percent longer. Fortunately, since chicken breast cooks through quickly anyway, the difference shouldn’t be too noticeable.
Can You Cook Meat From a Frozen State?
Depending on the technique you use, it’s usually fine to cook meat without defrosting it first.
Your goal is to keep the meat’s internal temperature out of the “danger zone”—that is, between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit—as much as possible. At these temperatures, the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses can multiply quickly.
When the meat is frozen to begin with, it can take longer for the internal temperature to climb above 140 degrees. If it stays in the danger zone for longer than 4 hours during cooking, the meat might not be safe to consume.
That’s the main reason why it’s always better to defrost meat before cooking. However, as long as it cooks to a safe temperature within the prescribed time frame, it should be fine. Since chicken breasts are relatively small, this shouldn’t be a major issue.
There’s also the concern that frozen meat doesn’t take on as much smoke flavor as fresh meat. While this may be valid, the meat will be thawing as it cooks. Even a hint of smoke flavor is better than none at all.
How Long Does It Take To Smoke Chicken Breasts?
That depends on the smoker temperature, as well as the type of chicken breast you’re using.
Bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts will take longer to cook than their boneless and skinless counterparts. That’s one of the reasons we suggest using a higher smoker temp for these specimens (see section below).
Depending on the size of the breasts, the meat can take 1 to 1-1/2 hours to reach the desired temperature when the smoker is set to 225. Bone-in breasts take about 1-1/2 hours as well, assuming you’ve taken our advice and increased the smoker temperature.
How Long To Smoke Frozen Chicken Breast
Because the meat is thawing out as it cooks, the process will take longer than it would if you’d taken the time to defrost.
Expect the cooking process to take about 50 percent longer if the chicken breasts are frozen solid when you start to cook. If they’re partially thawed, they should take 25 percent longer to reach a safe internal temperature.
For example, let’s say you’re smoking a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at 225 degrees. The process typically takes about an hour, so if you’re starting with frozen chicken, you can expect it to take about 1-1/2 hours.
Best Temperature For Smoking Chicken Breasts
When smoking meat, you want to make sure you select the right smoker temperature for each cut.
Fatty cuts like pork butt and beef brisket need to cook for a long time at a low temperature. That’s because the fat and connective tissue require time as well as heat in order to break down and give the meat the proper texture.
By contrast, when you’re smoking a leaner cut like a whole turkey, we recommend using a higher smoker temp. Turkeys take a long time to cook, so if you set the temp too low, the smoke flavor will overwhelm the meat.
Chicken breasts follow a different set of rules. In addition to being lean, the breasts are small enough to cook through quickly, even if the smoker temperature is fairly low.
For boneless and skinless breasts, we suggest setting the smoker to 225 degrees. This will imbue the meat with plenty of smoke flavor without overcooking it.
Bone-in, skin-on breasts should cook at a higher temperature—250 to 300 degrees. If you set the smoker temperature too low, the skin won’t crisp up properly, which could lead to a chewy or rubbery texture.
How To Tell When Chicken Breasts are Done
The timing guidelines we’ve provided are only estimates. The only way to be sure that chicken is safe to eat is to test the internal temperature.
Chicken breasts are done when they achieve an internal temp of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s best to remove them from the heat at 160 degrees, though. The temperature will rise slightly while the chicken is resting, thanks to carryover cooking.
Be careful not to cook chicken breasts past 165 degrees. When it’s overdone, the meat will have a sawdust-like consistency. You can try to offset this effect by serving the chicken with barbecue sauce, but nothing will salvage the texture.
For optimum results, use an instant-read meat thermometer to test the internal temperature of the chicken at the estimated halfway point. If you think the breasts will take about 1 hour to cook, test the temp after 30 minutes.
The readout you get at the estimated halfway mark should give you a better idea of when the meat might be finished cooking. If you’re approaching 160 degrees already, the chicken won’t need much more time on the smoker.
Once the chicken has hit the 160-degree mark, it’s time to take it off the heat. Remove the breasts to a platter and tent them loosely with foil. Let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving to allow the juices to redistribute.
Tips on Safe Thawing
Would you rather wait and smoke the chicken breasts after they’ve had a chance to defrost? Thawing them in the fridge can take up to a day, but there are faster methods.
If you can wait another day to start cooking, set the wrapped meat on a rimmed plate or baking sheet, then store it in the coldest part of the fridge. It should be fully thawed within 24 hours, depending on size.
Alternatively, you can use cold water to thaw the chicken. Make sure the package is sealed tightly—you might need to put the wrapped meat in a zip-top bag, just to be safe. Then set the package in cold water, making sure the chicken is fully submerged.
Meat thaws at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound in a cold water bath. Swap out the water every 30 minutes to ensure that it doesn’t warm up to room temperature. When the chicken is defrosted, season and cook it immediately.
You can also use the microwave to thaw the chicken, though this isn’t our favorite technique. The microwave causes meat to thaw unevenly, so parts of it might be cooked through while the rest is still frozen.
If you do opt for the microwave, use the defrost setting, or set the unit to 20 or 30 percent power. Put the chicken in a microwave-safe container and zap it for 1 minute, then flip it over. Continue to thaw in 30-second increments until the meat is defrosted.
As with the cold water method, you’ll need to cook the chicken right away once you’ve thawed it using the microwave. There’s a good chance that it’s already entered the danger zone, so it’s imperative to cook it as soon as possible.
One final note: Never attempt to thaw chicken at room temperature. You might think that this will speed things along, but meat shouldn’t be kept at room temp for any longer than 2 hours, or it may become contaminated.
The Bottom Line
Smoking frozen chicken breast isn’t ideal, but it can be done. The key is to ensure that the meat cooks to a safe temperature throughout. This is the case even when smoking defrosted meat—you just need to keep an eye on the thermometer.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!