How to Defrost Chicken

The drawback with frozen chicken? Thawing it! Here are the ins and outs of common methods, plus two hacks.

Raw butterflied chicken on baking sheet for chicken under a brick
Nick Evans

When I was a lazy teenager, my mom would call from work and ask me to pull some chicken from the freezer. Inevitably, I’d get distracted by a video on MTV and forget. She’d arrive home after working all day with no head start on dinner. 

Life happens. Thawing a chicken in the refrigerator is the best, but sometimes you need to nuke it or use a water bath. 

Here is a guide for all the scenarios. (And Mom, I’m sorry.)

The Best Way to Thaw Chicken

The best way to thaw chicken is in the refrigerator because it won’t alter the texture or tempt bacteria growth unnecessarily.

Before placing it in the refrigerator, set the frozen chicken on a plate or pan to contain potential leaks. If you remove the packaging (it will thaw faster out of the packaging), make sure the chicken is still covered. 

The larger the chicken or chicken pieces, the longer it will need to thaw.

A whole chicken can take to 2 days in the fridge to thaw completely. Boneless, skinless breasts or thighs will thaw within 24 hours, provided they’re not frozen together in a block.

Chicken in a fridge set at 35°F will take longer to thaw than chicken in a fridge set at 40°F.

Can You Refreeze Chicken?

If you thaw meat in the fridge and don’t get a chance to cook it, you can safely refreeze the meat, though its texture may suffer.

How to Roast a Whole Chicken - raw whole chicken and butchers twine

Thawing in a Water Bath

The water bath method is only recommended for chicken pieces, not a whole chicken.

 Place the chicken in a leakproof, zip-top bag. This prevents the water from altering the chicken’s texture and keeps the chicken juice safely contained.

Fill a large bowl or pot with cool water (under 40° F), then place the bagged chicken inside. Change the water out every 30 minutes. Some methods call to constantly run cold water over the container, but this wastes water and ultimately does not speed up thawing.

Thawing a chicken in a water bath will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the chicken parts. 

Chicken thawed in a water bath can be refrozen.

Thawing in the Microwave

This is a last resort, since microwave thawing can dry out the outer parts of a chicken, leading to a woody texture. Don’t thaw a whole chicken in the microwave, only smaller parts. Boneless cuts do best.

Take the chicken from its packaging and put it on a microwave-safe dish that’ll hold any liquid the chicken may release. Use the defrost setting (not full power) and check on the progress every two minutes. Refer to your microwave’s manual for specific directions.

Cook chicken immediately after thawing in the microwave. The warmer internal temperature of chicken that’s been thawed in the microwave is ripe for bacteria growth, so it should be cooked right away.

Do not refreeze chicken that’s been thawed in the microwave. 

Easy Chicken and Broccoli Sous Vide remove the chicken
Nick Evans

Two Secret Thawing Hacks

Hack #1: Pressure cooker. Yup, you can cook frozen chicken in pressure cooking recipes. Here’s how to do it. The caveat: you have to actually cook the chicken, not just thaw it.

Hack #2: Sous vide. If your chicken is in a sous vide-ready bag, you can cook it sous vide directly from the freezer. It’s totally safe; read more here.

Thawing Do's and Don'ts

  • Don’t thaw chicken at room temperature. Room temperature is exactly the temperature that bacteria love. If you are in a time crunch, do another quick method, like the water bath or microwave.
  • Don’t thaw chicken in warm or hot water. Once again, this makes a bacteria party. If you are that desperate, get takeout or open a can of tuna for last-minute tuna melts
  • Don’t cook chicken on the stove or in the oven without thawing it. The USDA says it’s safe, but we’re not behind this. If you’re not careful, you could wind up with chicken that’s cooked on the outside and still frozen inside, which is both unsafe and unappetizing.
  • Do be sure to follow good food handling practices. Be mindful not to spill or splash any raw chicken liquid around. Wash and sanitize cutting boards and surfaces immediately after you’ve had raw chicken on them.