Got chicken on the menu but it's frozen? Here's how to (and how not to) thaw your frozen chicken.
raw chicken drumsticks on a plate
Credit: Getty

There's a right way and a wrong way to do most things in the kitchen, but the stakes are particularly high when it comes to the question of how to thaw chicken fast. Why? Uncooked chicken can harbor bacteria that can grow to unsafe levels if the thawing process takes too long. If chicken is on the menu but it's frozen, there are ways to thaw the chicken safely and quickly. Here are the do's and don'ts when it comes to thawing chicken. (And if you're wondering how to defrost chicken fast, keep reading. For all intents and purposes—and according to Merriam-Webster—the process for thawing and defrosting chicken are one and the same.)

DO thaw it in the fridge

The easiest way to thaw chicken is to simply move it from your freezer to your refrigerator's meat drawer. Chicken breasts or thighs will take about a day to defrost completely in the fridge, while a whole chicken can take three days or more, depending on the size. While this is the easiest way to go, it takes the longest and requires some forethought.

According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, "After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as poultry should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before cooking. Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality." Here's more on when you can refreeze thawed chicken.

If time is not on your side, there are ways to speed up the thawing process.

DO thaw it in cool water

Chicken will thaw faster if it's submerged in cold water. A package of chicken breasts or thighs can thaw within a couple of hours in a bowl of cold tap water kept in the sink. FSIS says, "A whole (3- to 4-pound) broiler-fryer or package of parts should thaw in 2 to 3 hours."

There are a few things to keep in mind if you're thawing chicken this way: The water should be kept cool (below room temperature), which will require changing out the water every 30 minutes as it warms up. Also, the chicken should be left in its packaging. If you notice a tear or hole in the packaging, insert the package into a leakproof, sealable bag. If you notice the packaging was compromised after the thawing is complete, be sure to thoroughly clean the bowl or sink used for defrosting after you're done.

Chicken thawed this way should be cooked immediately after thawing.

DO thaw it in hot water

Although FSIS does not endorse this method, if you really need to defrost your chicken quickly, you can defrost it using hot water (around 102°F). While this method is the fastest (around 10 minutes or so), there are some caveats. This method only works for chicken breasts or thighs that are 1 inch thick or less. Anything thicker, and the outside surface will get too warm while the inside will remain frozen. With this method it's particularly important to cook your chicken right away, since you are bringing the meat (albeit temporarily) into the danger zone. The "danger zone" is classified as temperatures between 40 and 140°F, the range in which bacteria grow most readily. (So no changing the menu once the chicken has defrosted!).

DO NOT thaw it on the counter

It may seem like a good idea, but the truth is, thawing your chicken by leaving it on the counter is not safe. The defrosting process takes too long, with the exposed meat lingering in the dreaded danger zone longer than it should. FSIS notes, "never leave food out of refrigeration over 2 hours. If the temperature is above 90°F, food should not be left out more than 1 hour."

DO NOT thaw it in your microwave

Yes, most microwaves come with a handy-dandy defrost button, but that function is best left to other things. The microwave will defrost your chicken unevenly, heating up some parts while leaving other parts still frozen solid.

FSIS does not discourage defrosting in the microwave but advises that, "After thawing in the microwave, always cook immediately after, whether microwave cooking, by conventional oven, or grilling. Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing."

DO NOT cook your frozen chicken while it's still frozen

You may be tempted to throw your frozen chicken right in the pan, but don't. The outside will cook quickly, while the inside will remain frozen. By the time you reach the recommended internal temperature for cooked chicken (which is 165°F), the outside will be overdone.

However, since FSIS is more concerned about food safety than food's taste and texture, it only warns that this method of cooking will take twice as long as when the chicken is completely thawed before cooking. Just like defrosting in the microwave, we advise against this.

Bottom Line

The two best ways to thaw raw chicken are in the fridge, if you have time, or in cold water, if you have less time. These methods are the safest ways to thaw your frozen chicken. When thawed in the fridge, the chicken should be cooked within one to two days. When chicken is thawed in water, it should be cooked immediately after it's completely thawed.

Now that you know the ins and outs of thawing chicken, you're only minutes away from delicious meals: 20-Minute Creamy Chicken Skillet with Italian Seasoning. Or, try this crowd-pleaser, Chicken Cutlets with Sun-Dried Tomato Cream Sauce.