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How Long Can You Freeze Chicken? Pretty Much Forever...But That Doesn’t Mean You Should
Photo: Liz Andrew/Styling: Erin McDowell

Toilet paper, diapers, chicken...sometimes it just makes sense to buy in bulk. The first two can hang around forever but poultry? Not so much. So before you come home with a big haul of this dinner staple, let’s get one thing out of the way: How long can you freeze chicken? Well, friends, we have the answer—and it’s good news for you and your ‘family pack’ of chicken thighs.

How Long Can You Freeze Chicken? 

The short answer is...forever. According to the USDA, chicken will keep indefinitely as long as it is stored at a consistent temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. (Hint: That’s how cold your freezer should be.) But just because you can keep a bird in the freezer for two years doesn’t mean that you should. Although chicken that has been properly frozen for years won’t make you sick, it will undergo some unappetizing changes in texture and taste. For this reason, the USDA has some more practical guidelines: A whole chicken will taste fresh after up to one year in the freezer, while frozen chicken pieces should be consumed within nine months for optimal texture and flavor. That’s still a pretty good run, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to toss your frozen chicken. (Note: Poultry that has been cooked prior to freezing doesn’t fare quite as well—if you sautéed that chicken breast before you stuck it in the freezer, be sure to eat it within four months.)

How to Tell If Your Frozen Chicken Is Still Good

Reminder: If your chicken was still fresh when you put it in the freezer (and your freezer is working properly), then it is highly unlikely that your frozen chicken will be bad. However, things can go awry when you’re defrosting (see below for best practices) so it’s important to be able to identify spoiled poultry just in case. Per the USDA, “Spoilage bacteria can cause meat or poultry to turn a dark color, develop an objectionable odor, and become slimy from the high bacterial numbers.” Bottom line: If your chicken smells off, has a sickly gray-green hue or feels unusually slick after thawing, then it’s best not to take a chance. 

How to Freeze Chicken

The good news is that freezing raw chicken is refreshingly straightforward. In fact, all you need to do is transfer your poultry to an airtight container and stick it in the freezer. Avoid storing chicken (or any meat for that matter) in the door or the front of your freezer, where temperature fluctuation can be a problem. Instead, tuck you sealed up poultry in the back where it will stay safe and fresh for the maximum amount of time.

How to Safely Defrost Frozen Chicken

When you’re ready to cook your bird, choose from one of the following three methods for thawing poultry that have been approved by the Food Safety Inspection Service.

1. Use the fridge. The best and most fool-proof method for thawing frozen chicken is simply to transfer it to the fridge. This slow and steady defrost ensures a fresh piece of poultry—but it does take considerably longer than the other two approaches. A whole, frozen (3 to 4 pound) chicken can take two full days or longer to defrost in the fridge, but chicken that has been cut into pieces will likely be ready within 24 hours. You have to plan your meal ahead for this option, but there’s a bonus: You can refreeze chicken you transferred to the fridge up to two days after it has defrosted. In other words, planning ahead pays off even when your plans change.

2. Submerge in cold water. OK, it’s 5 p.m. and you realized you have nothing thawed and ready to go...and you really can’t justify ordering out yet again. No problem—place your water-proof bag of poultry in a stockpot, or any vessel large enough to accommodate the portion, and submerge it in cold water. (Note: If you stored chicken in a hard plastic container, you might want to transfer it to an air-tight freezer bag for faster thawing.) The FSIS says that a large quantity of poultry (like a whole bird or the equivalent in parts) will thaw in 3 to 4 hours, while smaller portions will be thoroughly defrosted in an hour or less—just be sure to keep the bacteria at bay by changing the water every 30 minutes so it stays chilly. Finally, the FSIS says that this method requires follow-through: Cook that chicken as soon as it has thawed...and do not re-freeze.

3. Enlist the help of the microwave. Ah, the microwave—our trusty appliance that always saves the day. This handy kitchen helper doesn’t have much street cred when it comes to cooking up an impressive meal, but it can do a bang-up job of defrosting a bird. Follow the settings on your microwave—this will likely require an estimated weight—to thaw your chicken in a flash. Just be sure to cook and consume your poultry promptly (i.e., put that protein on your plate, but not the fridge or freezer once it has been nuked).

RELATED: How Long Can Cooked Chicken Stay in the Fridge? (Hint: Not as Long as You Think)

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