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Here's How to Defrost Chicken Safely So You Don't Get Sick

Grandma may have left frozen chicken out on the counter to defrost, but that method is outdated.

When you go to the grocery store, you often buy for a full week to avoid making numerous trips. So, if you're not going to cook up those chicken breasts within one or two days of purchasing, it's a good idea to plop them in the freezer to ensure they don't go bad. But what if the following day you decided that you wanted to make that slow-cooker chicken in red wine recipe a few days early? Is your meal doomed because you're not quite sure how to defrost chicken the right way?

Meredith Carothers, the technical information specialist at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Claudia Sidoti, head chef of HelloFresh, both provide insight on ways you can safely defrost chicken at home so that you don't get sick and so your chicken recipe impresses the whole dinner table.

What's the best way to defrost chicken?

Carothers says there are three safe ways to thaw food:

  1. In the refrigerator
  2. In cold water
  3. In the microwave.

Method 1: Defrost chicken in the refrigerator

"The refrigerator is the safest thawing method, but takes the longest amount of time," Carothers says. "You will often have to plan ahead when thawing in the refrigerator to allow the chicken enough time to fully thaw."

Sidoti says that if you know you have at least 12 hours before you plan to cook the chicken, opt for the refrigerator method.

"This is the best method, since it doesn't expose the meat to warmer temperatures and it also requires the least amount of attention," she says. "Take your chicken out of the freezer up to two days before you plan to cook it."

Method 2: Defrost chicken in cold water

If you're in a time crunch, the cold water method is a faster, just as effective method. The only catch is that the frozen chicken you're defrosting must be sealed in a leak-proof package or plastic bag.

"If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the meat's tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product," Carothers says. "The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw."

Method 3: Defrost chicken in the microwave

The fastest method of the three is undoubtedly the microwave, which has a defrost setting. Whichever quick method you choose (cold water or microwave), one thing remains the same—you should always cook the chicken immediately after it thaws. If you put the thawed chicken back in the refrigerator to cook at a separate time, it could invite harmful bacteria to grow on the meat and potentially make you sick.

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Why shouldn't you let chicken thaw on the counter?

Sorry, but that old chicken on the counter method isn't a safe way to defrost frozen chicken.

"Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter because even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the Danger Zone, between 40 and 140 °F," says Carothers.

It's between these temperatures where bacteria can multiply rapidly, and they can produce toxins that won't be destroyed through cooking.

Can you still cook chicken even if it's frozen?

Yes, you can, it just inevitably requires a longer cook time.

"This is best for recipes that need slow-cooking rather than sautéeing or frying since the excess moisture will prevent the meat from getting crispy on the outside," says Sidoti. Now, it's time to get cooking. Or thawing, actually.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne
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