How to Defrost Frozen Chicken 3 Ways

Here's how to defrost chicken safely in the fridge, in the sink and in the microwave.

Thawing food properly is a big deal, but it can feel like a pain. Luckily, learning how to defrost chicken safely isn’t as difficult as you might think. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified three safe ways to thaw meat (including one last-minute technique if you forget to defrost in advance). Plus, it turns out chicken is one of the meats that’s safe to cook from frozen—especially if you have an Instant Pot!

How Long Does It Take Chicken to Defrost?

The USDA says that food is safe indefinitely in the freezer, but bacteria can start to grow during the thawing process. That happens when the food’s temperature rises above 40°F. Using unsafe thawing methods can lead to the center remaining frozen while the outer layer of meat is in the “danger zone.” This temperature range (between 40° and 140°) allows bacteria to grow and rapidly multiply, and food kept at these temperatures for extended periods can cause foodborne illness.

Large roasts or turkeys can take a long time to thaw. To defrost a turkey, for example, takes 24 hours for every five pounds of weight! Luckily, chicken is relatively small, especially if you’re thawing small cuts like boneless skinless chicken breasts. Each thawing technique has its own timeline, so read on to learn the best way to thaw chicken using the USDA’s three recommended methods.

How to Defrost Chicken

Method 1: How to Thaw Chicken in the Refrigerator

This is the slowest way to thaw chicken, but it’s also the safest. In fact, it’s so safe that you can wait a few days before cooking the chicken, and you can even re-freeze it if you need. That’s because the refrigerator keeps the entire chicken at safe temperatures during the entire thawing process.

Remove the chicken from the freezer and place it on a plate to catch any drippings that may release while the chicken thaws. As a general rule of thumb, it should take anywhere between 12 to 24 hours to thaw boneless skinless chicken breasts. It may take an extra day to thaw a whole chicken or chicken cuts that are frozen together in a large chunk.

Method 2: How to Thaw Chicken in Cold Water

If you forgot to pull your chicken out of the freezer ahead of time, this method is your best bet because it’s a little faster than the refrigerator. You will need to keep a close eye on the chicken during the thawing process, though, to ensure it stays at safe temperatures. It’s important to cook the chicken as soon as it’s thawed, too, and it’s not safe to refreeze it unless the chicken has been cooked.

Keep chicken in the original packaging. If the packaging is damaged in any way, remove the chicken and place it in a leak-proof package, like a freezer bag. Fully submerge the chicken in cold tap water. You can use a large bowl if the chicken will fit, or fill the sink with enough water to cover the chicken. From there, you’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes to ensure the water doesn’t warm up and reach the danger zone. Small chicken cuts should thaw in about an hour, although a whole chicken may take up to three hours.

Method 3: How to Thaw Chicken in the Microwave

This is our least favorite method for thawing chicken, but it’s also the quickest. Thawing chicken in the microwave leads to uneven thawing, so the outside can be in the danger zone while the inside is still frozen. That means you’ll want to cook the chicken right away to prevent any bacteria growth.

Start by unwrapping the chicken or removing it from its packaging. Place the chicken on a microwave-safe plate and consult your microwave’s manual to determine the proper power level and timing. If you don’t have the manual, set the microwave to defrost (or 20%, if your microwave doesn’t have a defrost setting). Cook the chicken in two minute intervals, turning it and checking to see if it’s done. Repeat the process until the chicken is no longer frozen. It may take as long as ten minutes, depending on your microwave.

What happens when you thaw too much meat? Here, find out if you can refreeze meat safely.

How to Cook Frozen Chicken

When all else fails, you may be able to cook your chicken straight from the freezer. According to the USDA, frozen chicken takes one and a half times as long to cook, so you’ll need to increase your cooking time by 50% when cooking it on the stovetop or in the oven. You can also cook frozen chicken in an Instant Pot.

If your recipe calls for cooking chicken for an hour, you’d want to cook it for 1-1/2 hours. Before you get started, remove any wrapping and paper inside the package. When cooking a whole frozen chicken, remove the giblet pack from the cavity as soon as you can loosen it.

Keep in mind that not all cooking methods work well with frozen chicken. It’s safe to cook most frozen chicken in the slow cooker, although we suggest cutting it into small pieces before cooking it. It wouldn’t be safe to cook a frozen whole chicken in the slow cooker, though, because it will take too long to thaw, keeping it at the danger zone temperature for an extended period.

Tips for Thawing Chicken

Our best advice for thawing chicken is to be patient. It can take a day or longer for chicken to defrost in the refrigerator. We’ve discussed quicker methods if you’re running short on time, but it’s really important to avoid thawing foods on the kitchen counter, outdoors or in hot water. These methods hold part or all of the chicken at improper temperatures, increasing your risk of foodborne illness. Take your time and plan ahead, or use our method for cooking chicken straight from the freezer.

Now that your chicken is thawed, try one of our easy chicken breast recipes for dinner!

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially if it provides an opportunity to highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.