Is defrosted chicken safe to eat? (Safe thawing methods)
In this brief guide, we will answer the question “Is defrosted chicken safe to eat?”. We also will discuss how to properly defrost chicken and the risks of spoiled chicken.
Is defrosted chicken safe to eat?
Yes, defrosted chicken is safe to eat as long as it is properly defrosted and cooked. It’s important to keep a safe temperature while thawing both raw and cooked chicken, as well as other foods that spoil easily. When chicken starts to defrost and its temperature goes beyond 40°F (4.4°C), any bacteria that might have been in the chicken before freezing can start growing quickly.
This is why it’s not safe to let food defrost at room temperature. Even if the middle of the chicken stays frozen while it’s thawing, the outside of the chicken can end up in the “Danger Zone” of 40°F to 140°F (4.4°C to 60° C). In this temperature zone, bacteria multiply rapidly. There are three ways to safely thaw chicken: in the fridge, using cold water, or in the microwave. (1)
What are the risks of thawing?
Defrosting poses its own set of unique struggles that are different from freezing. It requires precise timing and deals with temperatures above freezing point, which could potentially lead to the growth of harmful microbes. For food that’s thawing, it’s important to keep it at a lower temperature.
This usually results in a smaller difference in temperatures, which can slow down the process of heat moving through the food compared to when it’s freezing and as such thawing normally takes longer. Plus, food that has already been thawed tends to transfer heat less effectively than frozen food, further delaying the process.
The temperature range between -10°C and -2°C is especially crucial and it is important to pass through this range quickly to reduce any potential issues. (2, 3)
How to thaw a chicken?
When it comes to thawing large frozen items, it’s essential to plan ahead. Allotting a minimum of one day for every 5 pounds of weight is crucial. Even a small portion of frozen food like boneless chicken breasts requires a full day to fully thaw.
After chicken is thawed out it’s possible to safely store it for an additional day or two before cooking. Chicken thawed by this method can be put back in the freezer, but this can lead to reduced quality. (1)
Cold Water Thawing
While this approach offers a faster thawing method in comparison to using a refrigerator, it does require careful attention. To start, make sure the chicken is sealed in an airtight container or plastic bag, even the smallest leak could introduce bacteria to the meat, and it’s also important to know that the meat could absorb water potentially leading to excess moisture.
Make sure the whole chicken or its parts are fully submersed and replace the water every 30 minutes. For a package of chicken wings or a small chicken around 3 to 4 pounds, thawing takes 2-3 hours. For boneless breasts weighing around 1 pound, thawing takes about an hour or less. (1)
When thawing chicken in a microwave, it’s crucial to cook it right after. The reason is, during the process certain parts of the chicken might warm up and start cooking already and might even reach the temperature range known as the “Danger Zone.” Do not store partially cooked food, because any bacteria that was present before may still be there and start to multiply. (1)
How long can chicken stay in the fridge after thawing?
The amount of time that chicken can be in the fridge after being thawed varies. Once it has fully defrosted, it will last about one to two days before it needs to be cooked. As for cooked chicken that has been defrosted in the fridge, it typically takes around 3 to 4 days before it goes bad.
For safety reasons, chicken thawed with the cold water method or microwave needs to be cooked right away. (4)
Can you defrost and refreeze the chicken?
Yes, it is possible to defrost and subsequently refreeze chicken. The defrosting method chosen plays a central role in determining whether chicken can be refrozen safely.
If the chicken was thawed in the refrigerator but hasn’t been used, it can be refrozen without requiring prior cooking. However, chicken that has been thawed using the microwave or cold water methods should be cooked before it can be refrozen safely. (4)
Microorganisms break down food and produce metabolites. These metabolites can create various physical and chemical changes in chicken meat. You can often identify these changes through your senses. For example, chicken may smell off, change color, or become slimy.
Still, it’s important to remember that you can’t always instantly tell when chicken has gone bad. How badly the meat has spoiled and how sensitive a person is to the signs of spoilage can both affect this. (5)
What are the most common foodborne pathogens in chickens?
Chicken meat can sometimes carry various harmful germs, with Campylobacter and Salmonella posing the biggest threats. These harmful germs can exist in large numbers within the birds’ digestive systems. However, spotting their presence, even if they’re in small amounts, is key when it comes to dealing with potential contamination of chicken meat. (6)
What happens if you eat bad chicken?
Eating spoiled chicken can lead to food poisoning and other related sicknesses. One common culprit is Salmonella, which can give you symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain.
Often, people with a Campylobacter infection experience diarrhea that could sometimes be bloody, paired with a fever and stomach cramps. They might also feel nauseous and could vomit alongside suffering from diarrhea.
Usually, these symptoms begin to show up between two to five days after infection and they typically last for about a week. They tend to become noticeable anywhere between six hours to six days following infection and tend to persist for around four to seven days. (7, 8)
In this brief guide, we answered the question “Is defrosted chicken safe to eat?”. We also discussed how to properly defrost chicken and the risks of spoiled chicken.
In my perspective as a food scientist, defrosted chicken is very safe to eat if safe thawing methods are used. In my research, I was able to highlight proper thawing methods and how to avoid chicken spoilage.
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U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety Website. Washington, DC. The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods. 2013.
Q.T. Pham, REFRIGERATION AND FREEZING TECHNOLOGY | Thawing, Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences (Second Edition), Academic Press, 202-208, 2014.
OBUZ, E.; DIKEMAN, Michael E. Effects of cooking beef muscles from frozen or thawed states on cooking traits and palatability. Meat Science, v. 65, n. 3, p. 993-997, 2003.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety Website. Washington, DC. Chicken from Farm to Table. 2019.
KATIYO, Wendy et al. Sensory implications of chicken meat spoilage in relation to microbial and physicochemical characteristics during refrigerated storage. Lwt, v. 128, p. 109468, 2020.
ROUGER, Amélie; TRESSE, Odile; ZAGOREC, Monique. Bacterial contaminants of poultry meat: sources, species, and dynamics. Microorganisms, v. 5, n. 3, p. 50, 2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. Campylobacter (Campylobacteriosis). 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. Salmonella. 2023.