With our hectic schedules, it’s no surprise that fewer and fewer of us are out buying fresh food every day to cook for ourselves and our families. The freezer has become our lifesaver, keeping us stocked with nutritious ingredients that last the whole week and beyond.
But let’s face it – there are days when the meal planning goes awry. The clock strikes five and you suddenly realize you forgot to get the chicken out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner. There’s no way it will be defrosted in time.
Your mother’s advice that you must NEVER cook chicken from frozen echoes in your mind, as you frantically try to work out what on earth you’re going to do.
So: can you boil frozen chicken? The answer, according to the USDA, is yes – but only if you follow certain precautions.
Food poisoning from undercooked chicken affects a million people each year in the US, and most cases are linked back to improper handling or cooking techniques. So preparing your frozen chicken is definitely not something you want to get wrong.
In this article we look at why cooking chicken from frozen can be risky, how to do it safely, and the big pitfalls to avoid in frozen chicken cuisine.
In a Nutshell
- Eating undercooked chicken can cause food poisoning because of bacteria in the meat.
- You can boil chicken from frozen, but not all cooking methods are safe for frozen chicken.
- Cooking from frozen means you don’t have to wait for chicken to defrost, but you must add 50% to the normal cooking time.
- The middle of the meat must reach a temperature of 165 °F (74 °C). Always use a meat thermometer to make sure.
Why Could Frozen Chicken Be Risky to Eat?
Going back to your mother’s words, and we can see why she told you to never cook chicken from frozen. Raw chicken can harbor bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Clostridium perfringens. If we consume these bacteria in with our food, it can cause the typical symptoms of food poisoning: diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever are common, and some cases can get serious very quickly.
So how do we make sure our chicken is free of these toxic bacteria? Well, they can survive being frozen, which means the chicken you got out of the freezer has just as many bacteria on it as fresh raw chicken. The best defense is heat, exposing the bacteria to a minimum temperature of 165 °F (74 °C). This is enough to kill the bacteria.
The trouble with cooking chicken from frozen is that the outside will cook a lot faster than the inside. It’s possible for the outer layers of your chicken to be crispy-cooked – or even heading towards burned – while the meat inside has barely defrosted and is still providing a safe-haven for these dangerous bacteria. Worse, when food sits in the “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F (4°C to 60°C) for two hours or more, the bacteria multiply, making the food even more risky for us to consume.
When you decide to cook frozen chicken, it’s important to choose a method that will heat the meat evenly and thoroughly, and ensure your food is safe for the whole family to eat.
Is it Safer to Defrost it First?
It’s certainly true that cooking fully-thawed chicken is easier to get right than cooking chicken from frozen. But it may surprise you to know that just as many people go awry in defrosting frozen chicken as in cooking it.
The advice from the USDA is that frozen chicken that is being defrosted for later use, should be thawed either in the refrigerator or in cold water. This is so that the chicken stays below 40°F (4°C) throughout the thawing process – keeping it safely out of the “danger zone”.
An alternative, for chicken that will be cooked immediately, is to defrost it in the microwave. The caveat here is that the defrosted chicken should then be cooked immediately after thawing, and should not be left in a warm state.
And yet, many people will leave their frozen chicken out on the counter to thaw, or defrost it in a bowl of hot or warm water, to make it defrost faster. In doing so, we place our food in the danger zone for several hours, which makes it more of a health hazard.
If you haven’t got the time to let the chicken defrost slowly, it may be better to cook it from frozen, in a safe way, rather than leave it to defrost on the countertop and risk food poisoning.
How to Cook Frozen Chicken Safely
Now that we know what the dangers are around frozen chicken, and the pitfalls of trying to cut corners on defrosting, we can look at safe ways of cooking it.
Before we start, a quick announcement from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), extracted from their food safety information guidelines:
- Frozen chicken takes 50% longer to cook than meat that has been already thawed.
- Always remember to check the internal temperature of your chicken to make sure it is not under cooked: this should be done with a food thermometer, applied to the thickest part of the meat at the thigh and breast. The safe minimum temperature is 165 °F (74 °C).
With those guidelines in mind, let’s look at two easy, safe ways of cooking frozen chicken.
Yes, it is safe to boil frozen chicken on the stove. A low simmer is recommended, as it applies an even gentle heat to the meat which allows for more even cooking right to the center of the meat. It’s ok to sear the frozen meat quickly when you first put it in the pan, but this should be followed by adding water or stock and turning the heat down.
How long does frozen chicken take to boil? Boiling a whole chicken from frozen could take between 90 minutes and 3 hours, depending on the size of the bird. If you are cooking frozen chicken breast or chicken legs, then it will take around 60 to 90 minutes.
Whatever your recipe, remember to add 50% to the cooking time you would normally use if the meat was thawed – and, of course, to delay the point at which you add your vegetables accordingly! Get your meat thermometer ready so you can check the internal temperature of your chicken before you serve.
If boiling isn’t your thing, you can roast frozen chicken in the oven, just as you would fresh chicken. Roasting from frozen will take longer than normal, with a 5lb bird taking 3 hours to roast at 350°F (177°C) rather than the usual 2 hours.
You can season your frozen chicken externally, just as you would a fresh one: as the chicken defrosts in the oven, it will start to absorb the aromas of the herbs and seasoning you applied. Alternatively, prepare a baste for your chicken and apply it half way through cooking, once the chicken has thawed.
What Not to Do When Cooking Chicken
Now that we have covered the safe ways of cooking your frozen chicken dinner, let’s take a quick look at the ways that are not recommended – and why.
1. Do not cook frozen chicken in a slow cooker
Slow cookers can be a god-send – but not to a frozen chicken. This is because of the temperature curve that occurs when a slow cooker is in operation. Remember the “danger zone” we talked about? Whether fresh or frozen, we need to get that chicken above 140°F (60°C) as fast as possible.
For fresh food, the slow cooker brings it out of the danger zone within a couple of hours. When starting from frozen, however, this process is delayed, and it can take several hours for the chicken to reach a safe temperature. Having your chicken sit in the danger zone isn’t a recipe for a happy dinner. Better to save the slow cooker for defrosted chicken.
2. Don’t use the microwave to cook frozen chicken
The microwave is often a go-to for heating up frozen meals, but it’s not recommended for cooking frozen chicken. The temperatures produced by a microwave tend to be irregular and the chicken will not be cooked evenly. As we said earlier, the microwave can still play an important role in defrosting your chicken ready for you to cook.
3. No Grilling
We all love a barbecue, but grilling meat carries risks even when the meat is fresh. There’s a tendency for the outside to be overcooked or burned before the inside is fully cooked. This risk is multiplied with frozen meat, and the recommendations are to make sure all meats, including chicken, are fully thawed before you put them on your grill.
Kitchen hygiene is important, and knowing how to handle fresh and frozen raw meat is key to safe cooking practices. With these guidelines at your fingertips, you can confidently approach your frozen chicken and be sure that the meal you serve is both safe and delicious.