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What is the safest, quick way to defrost chicken? Microwave? Running water over it?

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Wow, amazing, this question has over 250k views when my highest SE answer with double the votes is 10% of that! +1 for SEO –  PW Kad Mar 19 at 22:44

12 Answers 12

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I suppose that depends on what you're defrosting it for.

The microwave (on low power) is safe and quick. The downside is that you're using a microwave, which means there's a good chance you'll actually cook the outside slightly in the process, and you're killing enzymes that are normally part of the flavour. The lower the heat, the less the impact of this, but it's still a problem. If I'm preparing the meat for marinating, stir-fry, etc., something with a powerful or thick sauce, then I wouldn't worry about it, but if it's going onto a grill with just a little bit of seasoning, you might want to avoid this.

Running it under warm water would seem to work, but I've found that it takes forever to defrost this way (the exterior will loosen up but the interior stays stubbornly frozen), and you're soaking it in the process. This really isn't suitable if you need to pound or fold the meat or do anything complicated with it.

I would use the microwave if desperate, but it's really best to thaw the meat in the refrigerator or, if you're in a bit of a hurry, the sink. It takes longer, but it'll turn out much better than the microwave in terms of flavour and tenderness.

P.S. One other word of advice: If you're making a dish that requires the chicken to be cut or sliced, it's best not to defrost it all the way. It's easier to cut when frozen, and will defrost very quickly once it's in pieces. I'm mainly talking about the breast here, this doesn't work so well with meat stuck to bones.


Update: I'm noticing a lot of recent hubbub about the dangers of defrosting in the sink / on the countertop or using warm water and I wanted to clarify something. Please note that that the advice above applies to chicken that will be immediately cooked after defrosting and that the defrosting is done over a period shorter than 2 hours.

Raw chicken must not be kept at any temperature above 40° F (4.4° C) for more than an hour or so. Do not defrost a chicken breast in the sink and then toss it back in the fridge. Definitely don't try to defrost a whole bird this way - stick to the refrigerator or very cold running water.

As long as you follow the above precautions and cook the chicken thoroughly (up to an internal temperature of 165° F), you're not in any serious danger of salmonella poisoning, even if the original piece of meat was contaminated - and most chicken sold today is contaminated, for the record.

If the meat is going back in the refrigerator for marinating or you plan to delay cooking for any other reason, then you need to either thaw it very fast (using the microwave) or at a very low temperature (using the refrigerator or cold running water).

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A microwave is fine for pieces of chicken, particularly it's a newer one which automatically sets the time for you based on the weight of the chicken pieces. (and don't stop just 'cause you think you're done ... that frozen core in the breast won't cook and might ruin your dish.

For whole birds, I go with the running water method -- mostly because my microwave won't fit a whole bird. You want to use cold water for safety, so you don't warm up the poultry too much to make it unsafe. You can put it in a container so there's better contact with the chicken, but you'll want to change it out every few minutes, as the chicken will leech heat from the water (which is what we want).

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I've used warm (not hot) water in the past and haven't gotten sick. Maybe I've just been lucky... –  Aaronut Jul 17 '10 at 15:18
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"food safety" is erring on the side of over-caution in a lot of cases. If you keep a clean kitchen, and you're cooking the food thoroughly, and don't cross-contaminate, it's not that big of a risk, but "safest" was the question, and cold water in this case is safer, and it doesn't adversely affect the meat as much. –  Joe Jul 17 '10 at 16:06

If you're defrosting in a microwave, put the chicken in a semi-enclosed package (lid on but not sealed shut), this way the steam will help to defrost: Use Low Power or it will cook!!

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Screw the microwave. The only thing it's useful for is crappy frozen food and hot water for tea (and even for tea an electric kettle is better).

What you want to do is put your chicken parts in a zip-lock bag if they're not already packaged, and drop that in a container that will hold it. Place said container under a slow-running tap of cold or lukewarm (NOT HOT) water. Depending on the size of the piece(s) you'll have thoroughly defrosted chicken in under an hour, well within the safety zone.

Convection is your friend.

-><-

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Check the following question for some safety concerns for defrosting with warm water. It is not recommended as safe by the USDA. cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/3472/… –  yossarian Aug 23 '10 at 12:17
    
That advice is questionable. "The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food." Yeah, and if it weren't for the fact that I was about to cook the meat and wash the sink thoroughly, that might be a problem. –  Jez Sep 25 '13 at 16:06

Using a microwave is probably the quickest way, but you must make absolutely sure the bird is defrosted. Every microwave is different, so check the guide that came with yours for timings. Even then, once you believe it to be defrosted, check the inside of the cavity for ice crystals.

If possible, rest for 10 minutes at room temperature before starting the preparation process. Once defrosted, don't refrigerate.

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I had heard that microwave-defrosting could increase the likelihood of food poisoning - wasn't sure whether that's an old wive's tale or not, though. –  Smashery Jul 17 '10 at 15:10
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@Smashery: You're about to cook it anyway, right? Most meat you buy in supermarkets is already contaminated with various types of food-poisoning bacteria (esp. salmonella with respect to chicken); you cook it to kill that bacteria. –  Aaronut Jul 17 '10 at 15:15

I usually fill a pot with hot water from the sink and drop the chicken in there (assuming it is vacuum sealed or in a tightly sealed ziplock bag with as much air as possible removed). This seems to work relatively quickly.

This works nicely for just about anything, as long as it's sealed.

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Check the following question for some safety concerns for defrosting with warm water. It is not recommended as safe by the USDA. cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/3472/… –  yossarian Aug 23 '10 at 12:16

A simple way to defrost meat in a relatively short amount of time is to place the meat in a zip-locked baggie and submerge in a large bowl or sink full of slightly cool water. It isn't as quick as a microwave, of course, but it is faster and safer than just leaving out on a counter top. Speed up the process by using warmer water.

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This method may be unsafe; warmer water is certainly unsafe. The acceptable method is cool running water, as convection transfers heat energy much more efficiently than conduction. –  SAJ14SAJ Sep 9 '13 at 17:56

Never ever use hot or warm water! That will have a much greater chance of having bacteria. Always use cold or cool water. I myself run it under cold water in my sink continuously while in a tight package instead of submerging it.

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The safest way to defrost a chicken is to take it out of the freezer at least two days before and let it defrost naturally while refrigerated. The second way I use is to put the chicken in a microwave safe bowl, fill with water and then follow oven suggestions on time per pound. If you use the water/microwave method it does not cook any parts of the chicken and turning is not necessary. But I definitely take it out of the plastic wrap.

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This is how I defrost chickens and the come out perfect http://howtofixstuff.blogspot.ca/2012/03/how-to-defrost-chicken-breasts.html

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There are multiple methods there - and all of them have been mentioned here already, unless I'm missing something. –  Jefromi Mar 21 '12 at 3:48
    
Also, you could describe the method you use in your own words (to prevent link rot). –  BaffledCook Mar 21 '12 at 22:23

I've been using the hot water soak method to quickly defrost and then cook my chickens for YEARS without any problems or sickness. I always thoroughly cook my birds; no pinkness. I then proceed to make chicken soup with the carcass and left over meat the next day. I think they just want to lean on the side of caution when they advice you NOT to do it this way. Some cooks don't know what they're doing so you have to say this. c

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You can ride a motorcycle for YEARS without a helmet and have no accidents. That doesn't make it a good idea. –  SAJ14SAJ Sep 25 '13 at 1:44
    
Leaning on the side of caution isn't just for people who don't know what they're doing, it's for people who don't want a small chance of getting sick. –  Jefromi Sep 25 '13 at 3:03

I really think everyone whining about food safety should use some common sense. ALL poultry is infected with salmonella and some other gross things that naturally live in their intestines, hence the stringent 'cook to this temp' guidelines. Cooking to 165°F internally kills all the bacteria; don't use 'pinkness' as a guideline, as bone-in chicken always has pink parts. It isn't recommended to defrost in some ways because of the cross-contamination possible with chicken just hanging out in the open.

TL;DR defrost your chicken however you like, but wash your hands and ALL kitchen work surfaces thoroughly and often.

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No, defrost it in a safe way, not however you like. It's not just about cross-contamination. –  Jefromi Oct 26 '13 at 2:46

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