Frozen chicken isn't convenient for easy meals, but thawing it ahead of time isn't always practical. Cooking frozen chicken is a perfectly good alternative when you want to get dinner on the table in a hurry. Your meal will take longer to cook, but you won't have to worry about defrosting the chicken safely or having it leak onto other foods in your refrigerator.
Make Some Simple Adjustments
Tweaking your favorite recipes to work with frozen chicken isn't difficult, but it means making a few simple adjustments. Consider the following:
Cooking time: Frozen chicken takes about 50 percent longer to cook than thawed or fresh chicken. If your recipe tells you to cook boneless breasts for 30 minutes, you should allow for at least 45 minutes of cooking time.
Smaller is better: Small pieces of chicken like wings or boneless breasts are usually your best choice. They don't take as long to cook so there's less risk of the outside becoming overcooked before the middle reaches its food-safe temperature.
Package it intelligently: A bit of advance preparation makes it easier to cook frozen chicken. Freeze it flat as individual pieces rather than as a single lump when you buy it. The pieces will cook more quickly and you can use only as many as you need at the time.
Check for doneness: It's almost impossible to "eyeball" whether a piece of chicken is done, and it's even harder when you start with frozen poultry. The safest method is to insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken; make sure it reaches a food-safe temperature of 165 F. Slice into a piece to verify that it's fully cooked and that its juices run clear if you don't have a thermometer.
Frozen chicken works with most of the same cooking methods you'd use for fresh or thawed chicken. One exception is your slow cooker. Frozen chicken would spend hours in the food safety "danger zone" before cooking fully, so this isn't a safe option. If you have enough time for the slow cooker, use part of that time to thaw your chicken instead, and choose a safer cooking method, or cook the frozen chicken using one of these standard techniques:
Frying: Standard breading or flour-coating techniques don't work with frozen chicken pieces so you'll have to adapt your frying technique. One option is to simply pan-fry your chicken pieces over medium heat under a lid until they're nearly done. Then you can sear it or add a sauce to finish the dish. You can pull boneless breasts from the pan when they're partially cooked and slice them into strips for stir-fry or pasta dishes. Another option is to take your pieces from the pan when the surfaces are thawed, then cool them for a few minutes and coat them as you normally would.
Grilling: Set your grill up for indirect heat. This means lighting one side but not the other on a gas grill, or raking the coals to the side in a charcoal grill so there's an area with no coals underneath. Start the chicken on the unheated side of the grill and cook it with the lid down until it's nearly done when you test it with an instant-read thermometer. Then you can move it to the hot side of the grill and finish it over high heat with your choice of sauce.
Roasting: Roasting frozen chicken pieces is very similar to roasting thawed or fresh pieces except it takes longer. If you're roasting boneless, skinless breasts and you want to bread them, it's best to wait until they're partially cooked then mound the crumbs on top. If you roast a whole frozen chicken, use a roaster with a rack and cook the bird without any stuffing or flavorings in the cavity. This makes it easier for the oven's heat to circulate around and through the chicken.
Broiling: Boneless breasts are also suitable for broiling, although large breasts may have to be turned once so they'll cook evenly. Larger pieces like leg quarters or half-chickens should be roasted first then finished under the broiler so they don't burn before they're completely cooked.
Poaching, boiling or stewing: Poaching or stewing frozen chicken is relatively quick because liquids transfer heat more efficiently than air does. Old recipes sometimes call this "boiled" chicken, although it should be cooked at a gentle simmer rather than a full boil because boiling toughens the bird. A gentle simmer helps keep it tender and moist. The technique works for pieces or whole birds so you'll have plenty of meal options. Soups, stews and casseroles all fall into this category, along with pasta dishes that simmer the chicken in a sauce.
Pressure cooking: Whether you use a traditional stovetop model or one of the popular, new electric pressure cookers, this method is usually the quickest way to put a meal on the table using frozen chicken. Electric pressure cookers work at a lower temperature than the traditional variety so their cooking times are longer. Frozen boneless breasts should take approximately eight minutes in a stovetop cooker or 10 minutes in an electric model, while bone-in pieces take 13 to 15 minutes on the stovetop or up to 17 minutes in an electric model. The time it takes for your cooker to release pressure is part of the cooking process so always follow the release directions in your recipe or your cooker's user manual.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: Chicken From Farm to Table
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: The Color of Meat and Poultry
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: The Big Thaw - Safe Defrosting Methods - For Consumers
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: Ground Poultry and Food Safety
- Fine Cooking: How to Prepare an Indirect Grill Fire
- Hip Pressure Cooking: Stovetop & Electric Pressure Cooking Time Chart
Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.