How to freeze chicken
Chicken is one of those ingredients that you can always rely on in a dinner emergency, so it’s a good idea to have some on standby, just in case. Luckily, chicken freezes well, so whether you’re stocking up or trying to make your leftovers stretch further, you can keep it tasty until you need it again.
If you’re freezing raw chicken, you can either leave it in its original packaging and wrap the whole thing in aluminium foil, or remove the packaging and place it in a ziplock freezer bag. If you use a freezer bag, you’ll need to remove as much air as possible from the bag to protect from freezer burn. A simple way of doing this is to submerge the bottom of the bag in a bowl of water and leave the top open, so the water pressure pushes the air out through the opening. Once your chicken is properly packaged, label it with the date and contents of the package and place inside the freezer.
Cooked chicken should be frozen in ziplock freezer bags, with the air pushed out and clearly labelled, as above. Divide the meat into individual portions before freezing so you don’t have to try and divide it when you come to use it again.
How long does frozen chicken last?
Frozen chicken is technically safe to eat indefinitely, but it will usually lose flavour and texture over time. If you want to enjoy your chicken at its best, a whole raw chicken will be good for up to a year, while smaller parts like legs or breasts will keep for around nine months. Cooked chicken should be eaten within 4 months, although cooked casseroles may keep for up to six months.
How to defrost chicken in the refrigerator
When you’re ready to defrost your chicken, the simplest and safest way is to put it in the refrigerator. Using a cold refrigerator to thaw frozen food may seem counterintuitive, but it’s important that the temperature of the meat is kept below 40°F until you’re ready to cook it, as temperatures above this encourage bacteria.
This method is the most time-consuming, however, and is likely to take at least a day, so you’ll need to plan your meals in advance. Smaller portions will take less time, but as a general rule, allow 24 hours per 1 to 5lb of meat. Put the chicken in a bowl while it thaws, in case anything leaks, and place it at the bottom of the fridge to make doubly sure nothing drips onto the other food in your fridge.
How to thaw chicken in cold water
If you don’t plan your meals days in advance and you need a quicker way to thaw your chicken, you can use the water bath method. Simply seal the chicken inside a leak-proof bag and submerge it in cold water. You can use your sink or a large bowl. Again, it is important to keep the chicken below 40°F, so change the water every 30 minutes to keep it as cold as possible.
A 1 pound bag of chicken may take around an hour to defrost in this way, while a larger, 3 or 4 pound bag can take 2 to 3 hours. It is important to cook the chicken as soon as it has thawed, as this method carries an increased risk of the temperature sneaking above 40°F.
How to defrost chicken in a microwave
Using a microwave is by far the quickest way to defrost chicken, but it does involve heating the meat to between 40 and 140ºF, the temperature range in which bacteria thrive and multiply. Because of this, you must cook microwave-thawed chicken immediately, to kill any dangerous bacteria.
It is also important to remember that the microwave is for thawing the chicken only. You should never cook chicken all the way through in a microwave, as it will spend too long in the 40 to 140ºF danger zone.
To use this method, turn the heat down to low, place your frozen chicken on a microwaveable plate, and microwave for 2 minutes per 1 pound of meat. Check frequently to make sure the meat is thawed all the way through.
Can you cook frozen chicken?
If you’re really pushed for time, you can cook chicken all the way from frozen, but it has to be done in a certain way. Firstly, the chicken should be cooked in the oven or on the stove (either fried or boiled) where the temperatures will be hot enough to kill any bacteria. Other cooking methods, such as a slow cooker or microwave, will keep the meat in the 40 to 140ºF danger zone for too long.
Make sure the meat is well spread out on a baking sheet or skillet, as large clumps will take longer to cook - this may mean planning ahead and freezing the chicken in small, manageable portions. Increase your cooking time by at least 50%, and follow the rest of your recipe as normal.
This method is best reserved for emergencies, as chicken cooked in this way won’t be as good as meat that has been properly thawed. If you’re in a hurry, though, it can be a great timesaver.
Can you defrost chicken on the counter?
You should never leave chicken out on the counter to thaw, as this places it in the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140ºF. Temperatures within this range create the perfect environment for bacteria to multiply, so any meat left out on the counter will quickly become unsafe to eat.
The risks of not defrosting chicken the right way
It is important to defrost chicken properly to kill bacteria and avoid food poisoning. When you freeze chicken, the bacteria living on it is not killed, but it does become dormant, which means it can’t multiply. If you defrost the meat at cooler temperatures, the bacteria will remain dormant, but once the temperature creeps above 40ºF, it will begin to spread and multiply, increasing your risk of food poisoning.
Cooking the chicken is the only way to kill the bacteria once and for all. It is important to make sure the meat is fully thawed before cooking (unless you’re cooking from frozen and have adjusted your cooking time accordingly), as partially-thawed meat may not cook all the way through, and this also carries an increased risk of food poisoning.