Chicken has become a problematic food since the 1980s, when food-borne pathogens such as salmonella and listeria began to show up in a high percentage of factory-raised chickens. It's vitally important to keep chicken out of the food-safety "danger zone" between 4.44 and 60 degrees Celsius in order to inhibit the growth of potentially harmful microorganisms. This is especially pertinent in freezing and thawing chicken, which if done incorrectly can increase the risk of food-borne illness.
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Methods of Defrosting Chicken
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recognises four safe methods of defrosting frozen chicken. The first is thawing the chicken in the refrigerator, which is the best and safest method, since the chicken never reaches the temperature danger zone. Second is defrosting the wrapped chicken under cold running water, which is quicker but less safe. Third is defrosting in the microwave, which heats unevenly and is undesirable unless the chicken is cooked right away. The fourth method is to cook directly from frozen, which eliminates the question of refrigerator life.
Refrigerator thawing is the recommended method for defrosting any frozen food. Chicken can take 12 hours or less for individual pieces, or 24 hours for a whole chicken. When freezing individual pieces, it's best to package them in a single layer rather than a solid lump, as the single layer will thaw more quickly. The FSIS recommends that poultry be held no more than two days in the refrigerator for the maximum level of food safety, and this is also applicable to thawed chicken. Remember to subtract the thawing time from the two-day limit.
Cold-water thawing can take less than an hour for individual pieces of frozen chicken, and two to two-and-a-half hours for whole chickens, depending on size. It's not as effective as refrigerator thawing for maintaining a food-safe temperature but, because of the short times involved, food safety is still adequately maintained. For the maximum degree of food safety, water-defrosted chicken should be used within 24 hours of thawing.
Microwave defrosting is the most problematic of the thawing methods, because microwave ovens heat unevenly. The thawing cycle of most microwaves is designed to work around this by increasing and decreasing the amount of power used to create resting periods, when the temperature in the bird can equalise. Even so, microwave defrosting creates hot spots within the chicken, where it enters into the temperature danger zone. Chicken thawed in the microwave should be refrigerated immediately and must be cooked the same day.
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