Freezing chicken is the best way to keep it fresh for a longer time, especially if you buy it in bulk. In our household, for example, we have a Costco membership. Every now and then, we buy packs of 24 chicken breasts or 6 whole chickens and put them in the freezer.
But just how long can chicken stay frozen while still being safe to eat? It’s a question that home cooks (me included) often ask. So I set out to find the answer. Here’s what I found.
Frozen chicken stays safe to eat almost indefinitely because freezing puts bacterial activity on pause, says the USDA. That said, long-term storage causes the chicken to dry out and lose its best quality.
Many home cooks worry that freezing chicken will make its texture and taste worse. When it comes to freezing, there are a couple of things to consider.
Freezing chicken is always the better option for storing it for more than a day or two in the fridge. Say that you’ve frozen chicken at peak quality, by which I mean immediately after you’ve brought it home from the grocery store or farmers market. Once you thaw and cook it, it will taste better than if you keep it in the fridge till near its expiry date.
Every time you thaw and refreeze chicken, it becomes less appetizing and less safe to eat. When you freeze meat, the moisture inside it turns into small ice crystals. These ice crystals rupture the fiber, which causes the meat to bleed when defrosted. Repeat this more than once—and your chicken will come out very dry.
A smart thing to do when freezing chicken is to freeze it in packages only as big as your family can eat for dinner. That way, you only thaw as much chicken as your household can eat, leaving the rest intact and at peak quality.
Since I understood this, I started to freeze chicken differently. When I buy a pack of 24 chicken breasts, for example, I separate them into 12 packs of 2 breasts each before storing them in the freezer. That way, whenever I want to cook chicken, I don’t have to thaw the whole pack and refreeze the rest. No more dry chicken at home!
How to Freeze Chicken
Most people freeze chicken directly in its original packaging. However, this isn’t necessarily the best idea if you want poultry to stay frozen at peak quality for a long period of time.
The right packaging helps you keep chicken at peak quality in the freezer and prevent freezer burn. Freezer burn happens when the chicken picks up a white color in the freezer, and the meat itself comes out dry and tough after cooking.
Though it’s safe to eat, freezer-burnt chicken sometimes has a strange texture and weird taste. They’re caused by the surface of the chicken losing moisture and becoming dehydrated at sub-zero temperatures.
If you’re about to cook freezer-burnt chicken, the best way to get rid of that texture and taste is by cutting away the freezer-burnt portions before cooking it. I do this after thawing the chicken and season it as usual before putting it in the pan or on the grill.
To store chicken in the freezer and retain it at peak quality for a long period of time, take it out it from its original packaging and place it in an airtight container or ziplock freezer bags. Make note of the expiry date by writing it down on the container or bag, and try to cook and eat it before that date comes.
As long as the chicken (as any other poultry or meat) is kept frozen at 0°F, it is safe to eat after the expiry date. In our household, we try to eat meat within several weeks and up to 6 months of freezing. We rarely keep meat for more than 4-6 months in the freezer (proper labeling of expiry dates help me take out the right packages of meat first).
How to Thaw Frozen Chicken
One question that home cooks often ask is, “How do I thaw frozen chicken?”
If you read the post this far, by now you know to repackage chicken in airtight containers or ziplock bags before putting it in the freezer and ration it out into packages only as big as your family can eat for dinner.
That way, you thaw only what you need to eat — and don’t need to refreeze the rest later. Refreezing, as we saw, causes the chicken to dehydrate and come out dry. And, let’s admit it, dry chicken is one of the saddest things on earth.
The best way to defrost chicken is to transfer it from the freezer to the fridge the night before you plan to cook and eat it. Place the bird or cuts in a container or bowl, placing it at the bottom of the fridge, so that none of the juices drip down on the rest of your food as it slowly thaws.
Depending on the size of the chicken or cut, it can take anywhere between 24 hours to 2-3 days to thaw it in the fridge.
If I plan to cook chicken for dinner and start cooking at 8:00 PM, I try to move the chicken from the freezer to the fridge at the same hour the night before. That gives me a good 24 hours, plus/minus 30 or so minutes, which is generally enough for most birds and cuts.
As an alternative and if you happen to be in a hurry, it is safe to thaw chicken in the microwave. Remove the chicken from any packaging before placing it in the microwave. Put the bird or cuts into a microwave-proof bowl. Use the defrost setting for 2-3 minutes at a time, checking the chicken after every round.
As I was researching this topic online, I came across a really good cheat sheet for defrosting any food in the microwave on Epicurious. Here’s what it recommended for thawing chicken in the microwave:
|Chicken Package||Thawing Methods|
|Bone-in chicken pieces, frozen together in one pack||Method A. Microwave at 50% power for 2 minutes. Separate the pieces and flip them over.|
Method B. Microwave at 30% power for 1 minute per 1 ½ pound of chicken. Check and flip over every minute.
|Boneless chicken breasts, frozen together in one pack||Method A. Microwave at 30% power for 2 minutes. Separate the pieces and flip them over.|
Method B. Microwave at 20% power for 1 minute per 1 ½ pound of chicken. Check and flip over every minute.
The thing that I don’t like about defrosting frozen chicken in the microwave is that it’s fast, but it’s also very aggressive to the ingredients and unnecessarily complicated to get right.
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer planning my meal for the next day and thawing it in the fridge the night before any time (even though I have a microwave oven at home).
The Bottom Line
It is rare for frozen chicken to spoil in the freezer. When you freeze chicken, the bacteria that cause spoilage and make it unsafe to eat freeze with it. This means you can freeze chicken for long periods of time, well past the expiration date.
The longer you freeze chicken, the more it will lose its peak quality. Chicken frozen for really long periods of time tastes bland and dry. If it has incurred freezer burn, its surface will also be tough. This is why the food you get in buffets doesn’t really taste that will. It’s simply been frozen for very long periods of time before it ended up on your plate.
Don’t turn your home kitchen into a buffet. Instead, freeze chicken in portions that you can thaw and eat, so that you don’t have to refreeze any leftovers. Store it in airtight containers or ziplock freezer bags and make a note of the expiry date by writing it down on a label. That way, you will always know which meat to cook and eat first, making sure that no meat stays frozen for longer than 6 months in the freezer.
The 6 months is simply my rule of thumb; take it or leave it. It has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with food quality. But, as I like to say, it’s your kitchen and, over time, you will create your own rules. So test mine out and let me know if they worked for you in the comments below — or simply share yours with the rest of this post’s readers!