Have you ever left frozen chicken out to defrost, only to order pizza or takeout for dinner instead? Hey, no shame; everyone has been there. Heck, that's what makes chicken the unsung hero of meal planning — you probably figure you can just toss that bad boy back into the freezer for a later date. Not only would that help cut down on food waste, but it could even prolong your next grocery trip. But what if you’ve left your frozen chicken sitting out long enough to defrost? Can you refreeze chicken safely then? After all, the last thing anyone wants is to give their entire family food poisoning. It’d be hard to live that mishap down.
According to the USDA, individual pieces of raw chicken (thighs, tenders, and breasts) can be stored in the freezer for up to nine months, whereas whole chickens can be frozen for up to a year. On the other hand, frozen cooked chicken has a shorter lifespan of only four months. Nevertheless, that's still a long time. As you may have guessed, though, thawed chicken has its own set of guidelines for refreezing and consumption. For example, frozen chicken can defrost in the fridge, in cold water, or via the microwave. However, you can only refreeze chicken thawed in the fridge.
Still feeling a little iffy over the whole thing? Scary Mommy asked experts for tips on how to refreeze thawed chicken, best by dates, and if there are food safety concerns that come with refreezing defrosted poultry.
Can you refreeze thawed chicken?
"There are a few scenarios to address here," Jenna Werner, RD, a registered dietician and owner of Happy Strong Healthy in New Jersey, tells Scary Mommy. "First, there is a difference between refreezing defrosted raw chicken and defrosted cooked chicken. Both can be refrozen as long as safety measures are considered (and taken seriously!) during the defrost process," says Werner, who stresses that not following USDA guidelines or refreezing chicken outside of the recommended perimeters could result in a higher risk of food-borne illness and bacteria growth.
As explained, there are three common ways to thaw chicken. However, according to the USDA, the best way to thaw poultry that will potentially go back into the freezer is via the refrigerator. "It is not recommended to thaw chicken at room temperature or on a countertop. Instead, you should only be thawing chicken in the fridge. Bacteria thrive at room temperature, and if thawing is done outside of the refrigerator, then refreezing is no longer an option," Boston-based dietitian and owner of Hub Healthy, Tava Sternberg, RD, explains.
Is it bad to refreeze thawed chicken?
Well, this is sort of a trick question. In short, the answer is no. Refreezing meat that was previously thawed and stored in the fridge for 48 hours or less is perfectly safe.
However, if thawed incorrectly, yes, it could be dangerous to refreeze and consume. "Chicken has a high risk of causing food poisoning if not thawed or cooked correctly, as it may be contaminated with bacteria like Campylobacter or Salmonella," Sternberg explains. "Cooking spoiled or bad chicken typically destroys surface bacteria but cooking it may not destroy the toxins produced by the bacteria and can still cause food poisoning." When in doubt, don't take the gamble.
As far as taste goes, that’s more subjective. When you eat chicken that was refrozen and then reheated, you may notice the chicken tastes a little different. Werner assures this is expected and no cause for concern: "Refrozen chicken can lose some of its freshness and impact flavor and texture due to the moisture that gets lost when thawing. So if you make a dish and it tastes off, it may not be your cooking."
How do you safely refreeze chicken?
Follow these USDA guidelines when refreezing thawed raw and cooked chicken:
- If you thaw raw chicken and decide not to cook it, you can refreeze it. (Sternberg recommends within 48 hours.)
- If you cooked frozen raw chicken, it is safe to refreeze leftovers within three to four days.
- If you thaw cooked chicken (i.e., you bought raw chicken, cooked it, and then froze it), it is safe to refreeze uneaten pieces.
Whether the frozen chicken is raw or cooked, it should not be left out of the fridge for longer than two hours, or one hour in environments over 90°F. If that does happen, toss it. According to Sternberg, "Raw chicken lasts in the fridge for about one to two days, while cooked chicken lasts about three to five days, so you should not be refreezing anything that is past these markers."
How many times can you refreeze chicken?
Sternberg strongly advises only refreezing chicken once to ensure food safety, quality, freshness, and taste. That means if you cook frozen raw chicken on Monday, leftovers must go back into the freezer by Friday at the latest. You can thaw and reheat those pieces on Sunday, but you cannot refreeze anything you do not eat for a second time. Capeesh?
How do you safely defrost chicken?
While we're on the subject of refreezing chicken, it's essential to know how to defrost it safely. Here are two ways to do it that help keep microbials from growing quickly.
- Use the fridge. You can store your frozen chicken in the refrigerator for one to two days. Just make sure the refrigerator is at 40 degrees or lowers. Then place it in a plastic bag or container. After it defrosts, be sure to cook it within one to two days.
- Place your chick in a pot or freezer bag filled with cold water. Be sure to replace the water every 30 minutes. After the chicken has completely thawed, cook it right away.
- Stick it in the microwave, but only heat the amount of chicken you intend on using. Use a microwave-safe container and cook immediately once the chicken has defrosted. Then clean out the microwave after removing the chicken.
- It's also important to note that it is OK to cook your chicken frozen too. If you're low on time, skip the thawing phase and make a chicken soup or get started on a sauce. Make sure you cook it much longer than you usually do to ensure the meat is cooked thoroughly. Instant Pots and pressure cookers are also great ways to cook down meat quickly. Avoid cooking frozen chicken in a slow cooker, as it can cause bacteria to grow in your chicken.
How do you safely buy chicken?
If you use reusable bags, when buying chicken, use the same bag for your raw meat each trip. Also, wipe those bags out often or after each use. When picking your poultry, stay away from leaking packages and check the best before date to avoid picking up spoiled meat. Generally, picking up your frozen and cold food at the end of your grocery shopping is a good practice and keep your food fresher longer.
Jenna Werner, RD, a registered dietician and owner of Happy Strong Healthy in New Jersey
Tava Sternberg, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of Hub Healthy
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