When it comes to slam-dunk meals that are easy to make and that both you and your kids are sure to like, everyone knows that chicken is the no-brainer choice. This crowd-pleasing poultry is not only a healthy dinner option, but it’s also a versatile protein that can be prepared in so many different ways, from impressive finger foods to mouthwatering grilled chicken recipes to healthy chicken dinners. Yet, despite how many can’t-fail chicken breast recipes you have bookmarked, the one thing that seems to thwart your dinner plans is forgetting to take the chicken out of the freezer in time. But that doesn’t have to be the case! You just need to know the tricks for how to defrost chicken safely and quickly and your delicious, no-fuss dinner is back on.
Here, we’ve outlined three foolproof methods to defrost your chicken as recommended by the USDA, so you can use the one that works with your schedule. The main thing that’s important to remember no matter what: Never thaw chicken by leaving it out on the counter or submerging it in hot water, as this will allow bacteria to multiply rapidly.
Another option is to skip the thawing process altogether and just cook it frozen. The drawback is that this method will extend the cooking time by about 50 percent. Whether you’re cooking up chicken to include in a healthy sandwich or planning to roast it with some veggies, here are the best methods for defrosting chicken:
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How to defrost chicken in the refrigerator
Thawing chicken in the refrigerator takes the most amount of planning ahead, as it takes at least a full day for the chicken to thaw, but it’s also the safest and most recommended. To defrost using this method, simply place your frozen chicken in the refrigerator; make sure your refrigerator temperature is set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and keep the chicken wrapped and placed in a container, tray, or dish that will prevent the juices from leaking onto other foods (you can also place it in the bottom shelf of the fridge for this purpose).
While most packages of frozen chicken may take less than 24 hours to thaw, large boneless chicken breasts, bone-in parts, and whole chickens may take up two days or longer to thaw. Once thawed, your chicken can remain in the fridge for an additional day or two before cooking.
How to quickly defrost chicken in cold water
Though faster than refrigerator thawing, this method requires more attention. Your chicken can be submerged in its original airtight packaging or place it in a leak-proof bag first. Fill a large bowl (or your kitchen sink) with cold water; then, submerge the bag containing the chicken in the water. Remember to change the water every 30 minutes so that the water remains cold and bacteria doesn’t start to grow.
Small packages of chicken (about a pound) may defrost in an hour or less, while packages of 3 to 4 pounds can take 2 to 3 hours, according to the USDA. Chicken that is thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately.
How to defrost chicken in the microwave
If you’re short on time, you’ll want to learn how to defrost chicken in the microwave — it only takes 10 minutes. First, remove any packaging before placing it in a microwave-safe dish or container and covering the dish loosely. Use the defrosting setting on your microwave to defrost for two minutes at a time, checking the meat and turning or flipping it periodically to ensure even thawing. (If you don’t have a defrost setting, set your microwave to cook at 20–30 percent of its full power.) Depending on the wattage of your microwave and the size and thickness of the chicken, defrosting will take seven to eight minutes per pound.
One important thing to remember is that chicken that’s thawed in a microwave should always be cooked immediately after defrosting. Since microwaves may heat up the chicken to temperatures in which bacteria thrive, promptly cooking the chicken to proper temperatures is the only way that will ensure that the potentially dangerous bacteria be destroyed.
Can you refreeze defrosted chicken?
Say you’ve taken a pack of chicken out to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner, but then the next day rolls around and you suddenly no longer have time to cook it, you still have the option to stick it back in the freezer — under one condition. As long as the chicken has been thawed in the refrigerator, it can safely be refrozen without cooking it first, says the USDA. Though, there is a chance that there will be loss in quality.
However, if the chicken was thawed in cold water or in the microwave, it must be cooked immediately. The reason you can’t refreeze the chicken after it’s been thawed in the microwave is that some areas may become warm and begin to cook during the process, and that means any bacteria present wouldn’t have been killed. Once the chicken is cooked, it can safely be frozen.
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Yolanda Wikiel is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, overly energetic toddler and supremely lazy calico. She has covered everything from home, food, and life skills to fashion, travel, and consumer goods for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Parents, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Oprah, and Woman’s Day.