It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. You’re drinking beer with friends in your backyard and you just fired up the grill. You promised the kids you were going to make their favorite barbecue chicken. It then strikes you… you forgot to buy chicken breasts from the grocery store. “Thank God,” you think to yourself, “I left some in the freezer from last time.”
There’s just one problem: they’re still frozen. This happened to me recently and, let me tell you, it took me some researching on Google to figure out what to do as I was grilling sausages for the grownups.
You can grill frozen chicken safely, as long as you thaw it first. The USDA recommends three ways to defrost chicken: (1) in the fridge for 1 to 3 days before grilling, (2) in cold water and in its airtight packaging for 1-3 hours, and (3) in the microwave for 5-10 minutes using the defrost setting.
If you’re cooking chicken on the stove or in the oven, simply increase your cooking time to 50% without thawing it. But you don’t really have that option on the grill because you’ll overcook the outside and undercook the inside. Because the inside is frozen and grilling cooks meat from outside in, the chicken meat won’t be able to cook for at least 30 seconds at the minimum internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).
Raw or uncooked chicken is not safe to eat because it can contain a number of bacteria, such as Salmonella, E.coli, and others. Bacteria multiply thoroughly between temperatures of 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C) — and freezing meat doesn’t kill them.
This is why, no matter if you’re grilling, frying, or baking chicken, you should always make sure that it’s reached the minimum internal temperature for the minimum amount of time.
Otherwise, you risk that you, your family, and your friends get a foodborne illness.
Here’s what to do to make grill frozen chicken safely.
How to Defrost Chicken in the Fridge
The best way to thaw chicken is to transfer it from the freezer to the refrigerator for 1-3 days before grilling. Keep the chicken in its packaging and place it in a large bowl. Whole chickens will take 2-3 days to thaw depending on their size, whereas boneless chicken breasts and chicken wings tend to take 24 hours.
Put the chicken on the bottom shelf of the fridge, so that now raw meat juices come into contact with any other food. This happened to me once and I had to throw away perfectly good Prosciutto ham and a couple of expensive Italian cheeses because they were now unsafe to eat…
Frozen chicken can be thawed, then refrozen. Doing so preserves the meat by preventing bacteria, yeasts, and molds to grow. Freezing the bits and pieces of the chicken that you won’t use is an effective way to minimize food waste.
When you have the option, always thaw chicken in the fridge enough time in advance. A chicken that’s been thawed properly will grill more evenly and taste better than one you’ve defrosted in a hurry.
How to Thaw Chicken in Cold Water
You can thaw chicken in cold water in the air-tight packaging that you bought it from the store in (or in a leak-proof bag). This will stop the water from damaging the meat, as well as prevent any bacteria from contaminating the food.
Fill a large bowl or your kitchen sink with cold water. Submerge the packaged chicken in it and keep changing the water every 30 minutes for 1-3 hours depending on its size.
Put the chicken on the grill immediately after thawing it; you shouldn’t leave it for any additional time on your kitchen counter or, if you’re doing this in your backyard, outside in the sun.
Use the Microwave to Defrost Chicken
The fastest way to thaw chicken is in the microwave. Here’s how:
- Remove and packaging and place the chicken in a microwavable plate or in a bowl. The plate or bowl will help catch any juices.
- Use the defrost setting for 2 minutes at a time. Keep checking the chicken to determine if it’s been defrozen or not.
- If you’re defrosting a whole chicken, keep turning or flipping it every now and then to thaw it evenly.
You should put the chicken on the grill immediately after using this method. This is because microwave ovens defrost chicken at a temperature lower than 140°F (60°C), which is when bacteria multiply thoroughly.
How Not to Defrost Chicken
Contrary to popular belief, do not thaw chicken on your kitchen countertop. Because bacteria thrive at room temperature, the chicken will become unsafe to eat.
Instead, my two cents is to stick to the three best ways to defrost chicken that I shared with you earlier one: (1) store it for 1-3 days in the fridge, (2) submerge it under cold water for 1-3 hours, and (3) defrost it for 2 minutes at a time in the microwave. They are effective in my own experience and safe according to the USDA.
Can Frozen Chicken Go Bad?
One question that home cooks often ask is, how long will frozen chicken last?
If you keep chicken frozen continuously, you can keep it frozen indefinitely and beyond the “best by” date. However, the quality, taste, and texture of the chicken are going to degrade for any storage periods over 9 months.
Keep frozen chicken in its original air-tight packaging or in leak-proof bags. Label each pack with the date when you first stored in the freezer. That way, you can easily decide what pieces to grill first.
When Frozen Chicken Turns White and Dry
This has happened to all of us: you open the freezer and take out a pack of chicken. You’re not really sure when you put it in there, but you know well that frozen chicken can last for a long period of time and well beyond its “best by” date.
For some reason, though, the chicken turned white and dry while in the freezer. Is it still safe to consume after cooking?
When frozen chicken turns white and dry, this is known as “freezer burn.” It’s a sign of poor packaging or that you’ve kept the chicken in the freezer for too long. Freezer-burnt chicken is safe to cook and eat, but will have permanently lost some of its original taste qualities like juiciness and tenderness.