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Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn
Freezer Week

We Tried 6 Methods for Defrosting Chicken and Found the Best Way

updated Sep 26, 2022
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Imagine this: You’ve been looking forward to a delicious home-cooked dinner of roasted chicken and veggies all day, only to realize you forgot to thaw the chicken. It happens to the best of us, and it’s seriously disappointing. Sure, you can cook the chicken from frozen, but oftentimes you just end up making something else for dinner. We’ve all experienced the unthawed-chicken pivot one too many times, so this is a problem I was determined to help solve.

In an attempt to help make this situation a bit less disappointing, I decided to test six popular methods for defrosting chicken to see which one was the best. I wanted to see if there was a way to quickly defrost chicken without having to cook it. Some of the defrosting methods worked better than others, but there was one clear winner that quickly defrosted the chicken while still maintaining its quality. Here are the methods we tested.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn

How We Tested the Chicken Defrosting Methods

The first thing I did was search the internet for the most reliable and trusted methods for defrosting chicken. Some methods were said to defrost chicken breasts in less than 20 minutes, while others required several hours. After landing on the six popular methods below, each one was put to the test. I purchased a value pack of chicken breasts from the store and individually froze them in zip-top bags. I made sure they were all roughly the same size and didn’t have too much variation in shape.

The judging criteria was not only about how quickly the methods defrosted the chicken, but also the quality of the chicken after it was thawed. Some methods were quick but produced chicken that was gray and unsightly, while others took several hours but resulted in perfectly defrosted chicken that was pink and ready to cook. I took both factors into consideration when picking my winner, and also judged them based on how easy the methods were. At the end of the day I found a new go-to method for defrosting chicken that strikes the perfect balance between quickly defrosting the chicken while still maintaining its quality.

For more information about safely defrosting chicken, read the USDA’s list of recommended defrosting methods.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Defrosting Method: Defrosted in the microwave.

  • Defrosting time: 4 minutes, flipping the breast over halfway through
  • Overall rating: 2/10

About this method: Defrosting chicken breasts in the microwave is hands-down the quickest method for thawing chicken breasts, but I have always been worried that it would negatively affect the texture (or, even worse, start to cook the chicken breast). But for the sake of this test, I put those worries aside. I removed the frozen breast from its packaging and placed it in a lightly covered microwave-safe container. I popped it in the microwave and set it to the “defrost” function and let it do its thing.

Results: After about a minute of defrosting, my microwave instructed me to flip over the chicken and continue microwaving it — and all together it took four minutes to fully thaw. The chicken turned slightly white on the edges and the outside looked a bit dry, as if it had been sitting out for a long time. While the chicken was definitely defrosted, the quality of the chicken suffered. The edges where white and it appeared as though the microwave started to cook the chicken. It also had a strange “cooked chicken” odor that was unpleasant.

My takeaway: Defrosting chicken in the microwave might be quick, but the results are not ideal. If you plan to cook your chicken right away, I suppose this isn’t a bad method, but the look and smell of the chicken definitely turned me off. If you’re in a pinch this method will work, but the quality of your chicken will suffer.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Defrosting Method: Defrosted on a defrosting tray.

  • Defrosting time: 2 hours
  • Overall rating: 5/10

About this method: There’s a large (and passionate!) group of individuals who swear by using defrosting trays to quickly thaw frozen meats. The trays can be easily purchased online and are said to significantly speed up the defrosting time. (Some reviews claim you can defrost meats in only 15 minutes!) The trays are made of metal that conducts the room-temperature air onto the frozen chicken breast, and the colder temps from the surface of the meat migrate into the tray. To test if these claims were true, I placed a frozen chicken breast on the tray and let it sit out at room temperature.

Results: After an hour the chicken breast looked about halfway thawed, so I flipped it over so the top was touching the defrosting tray and gave it more time. After an additional hour the chicken breast was completely thawed and some liquid had pooled onto the tray. The chicken had dried out slightly from being exposed to the air, but overall it looked good. The chicken was pink and ready to cook.

My takeaway: Although the defrosting tray did seem to cut down on the time it took to thaw the chicken breast, the amount of time saved was not significant. It took about two hours of defrosting to completely thaw the chicken breast and I’m not sold on the tray’s magic. I don’t think it was worth the money I spent on it, and overall I disappointed.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Defrosting Method: Defrosted in cold, running water.

  • Defrosting time: 1 hour
  • Overall rating: 6.5/10

About this method: Similar to defrosting chicken in a still water bath (method below), this method relies on cold water to speed up the defrosting process. But instead of simply placing the chicken in a bowl of potable water and letting it defrost, this method keeps a gentle stream of water flowing into the bowl to keep the water cold and prevent you from having to change it out. This was the method I used when working in restaurant kitchens, and it always felt like it wasted a lot of water, so I was interested to see if the time it saves is actually worth the water it takes.

Results: This method worked slightly faster than the still water bath method but still took about an hour to fully defrost the chicken. After setting up the bowl of water and turning the water on, I didn’t have to do anything else which made it slightly easier. The water just ran right into the sink. The chicken had no quality issues or discoloration, and the zip-top baggie kept it dry. The chicken was ready to cook and only had a small amount of defrosting liquid pooled in the baggie.

My takeaway: This method worked slightly faster than the still water bath method, but wasted a significant amount of water. The process shaved just 30 minutes off of the defrosting process compared to the still water bath, but it still took about an hour to fully defrost. I don’t think the time it saved was worth the water, so I don’t think I will be using this method in the future.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Defrosting Method: Defrosted in the fridge overnight.

  • Defrosting time: Overnight (about 9 hours)
  • Overall rating: 7/10

About this method: I used this method as the control to test the other recipes off of. I simply transferred the frozen chicken breast (still in its packaging) into the fridge and let it thaw overnight for roughly nine hours.

Results: After nine hours the chicken was perfectly defrosted and ready to cook. The bag had a little bit of liquid in it, but not a significant amount. The breast was completely defrosted and it had no discoloration or noticeable textural changes. This method worked precisely as expected.

My takeaway: Thawing chicken in the fridge results in perfectly defrosted chicken that is evenly thawed and perfectly pink. The method is ideal if you plan ahead, and it doesn’t change the texture or quality of the chicken. The only downside is that it takes a very long time, so unless you plan ahead this method is not very helpful — especially if you attempt to defrost a lot of chicken at once. (I only defrosted a single chicken breast for this test and imagine a large block of frozen chicken would take much longer than nine hours.)

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Defrosting Method: Defrosted in a hot water bath.

  • Defrosting time: 12 minutes
  • Overall rating: 7/10

About this method: In most cases, defrosting chicken in hot water is a food safety nightmare and not recommended. You want to keep your cold foods under 40°F to prevent the growth of bacteria, and defrosting chicken in hot water seems completely counterintuitive to everything I’ve learned about food safety.

But after digging online I came across a method for safely defrosting chicken in hot water detailed by food science expert Harold McGee in The New York Times. To do so you just place your frozen chicken breast (still in its packaging) in a hot water bath that’s exactly 140°F. Because the water is so hot, the meat defrosts quick enough to keep the bacteria growth in the “safe” category, yet not hot enough to actually cook the chicken. The method is not officially recommended by the FDA, but there are studies published by the FDA about rapidly thawing meat in hot water.

Results: To get my water bath at exactly 140°F I placed a small kettle of water on the stovetop and used a digital thermometer to monitor the temp. Once it reached 140°F I transferred it into a large bowl and placed my frozen chicken breast (still in its packaging) in it. The water temperature immediately dropped to 125°F and I let it sit undisturbed. After 12 minutes the chicken breast was fully defrosted with only very little change in color. The flesh turned the slightest shade of white, but it was barely noticeable.

My takeaway: This method worked very quickly and would come in handy if you needed to thaw a chicken breast as quickly as possible. The quality of the chicken was much better than the microwaving method and only took a few more minutes. But because the method is not officially recommended by the FDA, it’s best to take caution and use your own best judgement.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

The Winning Method: Defrosted in cold water that’s changed every 30 minutes.

  • Defrosting time: 1.5 hours
  • Overall rating: 9/10

About this method: One of the most hands-off methods for defrosting chicken is to simply submerge the frozen breast (still inside its packaging) in a bowl of cold, potable water. (Just make sure the water is below 40°F for food safety reasons.) Change the water every 30 minutes to prevent it from getting too warm, and use a plate or bowl to weight it down if it floats to the top. According to sources online, it will take about an hour to fully defrost.

Results: After one-and-a-half hours (and three changes of water) the chicken breast was fully defrosted. The chicken had no discoloration or quality issues and was ready to cook. The chicken kept floating up to the surface of the water and I had to weight it down with a plate, but the process was overall very easy. I was slightly worried the water would get into the zip-top bag, but it proved to not be an issue. The only liquid in the bag was from defrosting and wasn’t significant.

My takeaway: This method is ideal for days when you realize you forgot to defrost your chicken a few hours before you plan to cook it. It still takes a decent amount of time to fully defrost the chicken (about an hour-and-a-half), but is quick enough to save dinner if you realize you forgot to take it out by midday. The only downside is that you need to remember to change the water every 30 minutes for food-safety reasons, but other than that it’s a relatively quick and easy method.

The Biggest Takeaways

When it comes to defrosting chicken, striking the perfect balance between the time it takes to thaw it and the quality of the chicken after defrosting is not easy. Defrosting chicken in the microwave was by far the fastest method, but it made the chicken a weird gray color that was a bit off-putting. Defrosting chicken in the fridge overnight resulted in perfectly thawed chicken that was ready to cook, but if you want to speed up the process I suggest defrosting it in a bowl of cold water changed out every 30 minutes. This method only took an hour-and-a-half and resulted in perfectly defrosted chicken that was pink and ready to cook.

Your turn: What’s your go-to method for defrosting chicken? Let us know in the comments!