Have you ever carefully planned the menu for a party only to have a few more guests show up unexpectedly?
Sometimes life throws you a curve ball, like when the dog eats the chicken you unwittingly left by the fridge while you answered the phone.
With a lot of preparation to do and the guests arriving soon, you can’t make another trip to the store. Fortunately, you do have more, but it’s in the freezer. So you need to know how to defrost chicken fast!
A “Chicken Emergency” like this is common.
According to the USDA, the best method to safely thaw frozen chicken is by gradually defrosting it in the fridge. The downside is it could take more than 18 hours depending on the size of your bird.
I’m going to show you how to thaw chicken when you don’t have hours to wait for it to defrost.
One big thing you should always remember is to keep your chicken safe from bacteria by keeping it out of the “danger zone,” but, I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Let’s check out a few techniques that you can use to defrost your chicken. The question is how long you can wait?
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Submerge in A Cold-Water Bath (20-30 Minutes)
Most professional kitchens use the cold-water bath because it is the fastest and least damaging to the meat. This method takes only about 20-30 minutes to thaw a one to two-pound frozen bird.
Start by filling a stockpot or a salad bowl with cold water, and fully submerge the chicken. You’ll want to change the water every 10 minutes with fresh cold water. If changing the water isn’t practical, turn on the tap slightly to run a thin trickle of cold water on top to keep the water clean.
As the chicken thaws, pull the pieces apart to expedite the process. If you’re thawing the whole bird, make sure the cold water goes inside the cavity and pull out any ice to reduce the thawing time. Obviously, the bigger the bird, the longer it will take to thaw.
Be sure to use cold, potable water in a sanitized sink or container. The purpose of using cold water is to keep the chicken out of the “danger zone.” This is the temperature range of 40⁰F ( 4.4⁰C) to 140⁰F (60⁰C) which is when bacteria thrive.
While it’s tempting to use warm or hot water, do not use it! The outside of the chicken can be exposed to bacteria before the inside has thawed, creating a food poisoning hazard. However, there is one exception which I’ll get into below.
Another reminder, always cook your bird shortly after thawing, and never re-freeze it unless you cook it first.
Here’s a quick video on thawing in a cold water bath.
Can’t wait 30 minutes? Here’s another option.
Defrost Chicken Quickly in A Microwave (5-10 Minutes)
This method is quick, but you need to pay close attention as it tends to cook rather than thaw the meat, making it tough and stringy.
A microwave works by making the water molecules vibrate rapidly together, creating heat. If you leave the chicken in the microwave too long or at too high a setting, you are essentially steaming the meat from the inside out.
Check the progress of the defrosting chicken periodically, and remove it as soon as it’s entirely defrosted.
I recommend this method for skinless breasts, but not for whole or bone-in pieces.
A microwave doesn’t thaw equally and can end up cooking parts of the meat while it’s still frozen in other places. Still, some people like this method so I’ve found some “rule of thumb” settings you can try.
Success depends upon the power of your microwave and how well you monitor it.
A frozen Block of Bone-in Chicken Pieces
Start with 50% power for 2 minutes then separate the chicken and flip them over. Microwave again at 30% power. Plan on 1 minute for every 1 1/2 pounds.
Be sure to check and flip every minute until thawed.
A Frozen Block of Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
Start with 30% power for 2 minutes then separate the breasts and flip them over. Then reduce to 20% power, microwaving 1 minute for every 1/2 pound. Turn and flip every minute to avoid premature cooking.
The microwave is one of the fastest and safest ways to defrost your chicken, but you need to babysit it, or you’ll cook it through, at least partially.
If you have too much to thaw in a microwave, or don’t want to use a microwave but you’re still in a hurry, there’s one last emergency method.
Defrost Using Hot Water (10-15 Minutes)
While I don’t usually recommend this method, you can get away with it safely provided that you cook the chicken immediately to 165⁰F (74⁰C).
Start by running the kitchen tap water until it reaches 118-125⁰F (48-52⁰C) on your calibrated cooking thermometer.
Fill a sanitized sink or pot halfway with the hot water and add your chicken. Smaller, cut up pieces may take only 10 minutes to thaw, but the center of the thigh bone may still be frozen.
Because the frozen chicken will rapidly cool off the water, you can let it trickle into your container to keep the temperature higher while thawing. Stir the water to circulate and prevent cold spots.
Keep in mind that the outside surface of the chicken is exposed to bacteria, you need to cook it immediately. Monitor the internal temperature while cooking to ensure it reaches 165⁰F (74⁰C) before serving
Don’t Thaw It, Just Cook It (No Time)
We’ve already covered grilling frozen steak, so can you cook a frozen piece of chicken?
Cooking chicken without thawing will save you a step if you have the time and the right recipe. Dishes like stews, soups, and curries that require long slow simmering work well with this method.
You’ll need to add about 50% more time than what your recipe says. For example, if your recipe tells you to simmer for an hour, add an extra half an hour to the cooking time.
Here’s a video on how to slow cook your frozen chicken using a crock pot.
Not in A Hurry? Thaw In the Fridge (18-24 Hours)
As I mentioned earlier, the safest and best thawing technique is to take your frozen food out of the freezer and back into the refrigerator.
Thawing this way takes longer than any other method, but it keeps the meat out of the danger zone in the cold environment of your fridge. The thawing process is more even, and you don’t need to cook right away.
The USDA states that thawing using the freezer-to-fridge process means you can refreeze the food if you change your mind, but I don’t recommend it. Always cook thawed foods first before refreezing to avoid possible food poisoning.
This is the longest thawing method, so you need to plan at least one or two days before cooking if you would like to thaw chicken this way.
Below is a recap of the thawing methods.
Quick Tips for Thawing Chicken
- Fast defrosting methods work best with small to medium-sized pieces.
- Whenever possible, thaw whole chicken in the refrigerator for a day or more.
- The “danger zone” for optimal bacterial growth in food is between 40°F and 140°F (5°C and 60°C). Room temperature of around 68°-70°F (20°-22°C) is in the middle of that zone and why you don’t want to thaw on your countertop.
- Never refreeze thawed food without cooking it first.
- Use a clean calibrated thermometer to check internal temperatures while cooking or thawing. Never use the thermometer on raw then cooked meat without cleaning it first.
The next time unexpected guests drop by or the dog steals your meal, try one of these thaw techniques for how to defrost chicken fast and safely. They work and have gotten many a chef out of hot water.
Let me know which one you like best. You never know when they might have a “chicken emergency” and need to cook it fast.
If you have any thoughts, feedback or questions on the above, please leave us a comment below.