Slow cookers, Crock-Pots and Instant Pots are beloved by millions of home cooks because they take a lot of guesswork out of the cooking process.
But sometimes, taking a shortcut with a recipe isn't the safest way to make a meal. Take frozen chicken. Many cooks don't think twice about tossing a few frozen chicken breasts into the slow cooker — and the internet is filled with plenty of recipes that start with frozen poultry.
But, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), this common practice isn't a good idea.
“Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker,” reads the Slow Cooker and Food Safety guidelines from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. If this is news to you, you’re not alone. After all, it’s not like our favorite slow cookers come with these same warning labels on them.
When asked about using frozen chicken in slow cookers, a representative for Crock-Pot told TODAY Food via email that, "You can cook frozen meat in any Crock-Pot brand product, but suggested cook time may need to be increased." The company recommends using a meat thermometer to ensure that the internal temperature of the chicken is "well above" 165 degrees before consumption. The rep added, "We recommend that you refer to your product’s instruction manual as well for specific instructions and guidance."
The instruction manual for Crock-Pot's 1-3.5 quart slow cooker model not only advises increasing the cooking time when using frozen chicken, but also recommends adding 1 cup of warm liquid to “act as a cushion to prevent sudden temperature changes.”
Crock-Pot, which has been around since 1940, isn’t the only popular manufacturer condoning this practice.
Instant Pot, the headline-making slow cooker and pressure cooker combo device with a cult-like following, says on its website that there’s no need to defrost frozen food prior to cooking. Instant Pot doesn’t specifically call out frozen chicken but they do explain that, “Frozen food will prolong the pre-heating time and cooking time depending on the amount of food. To ensure to have your meal ready on time it is important to plan accordingly.”
When asked specifically about whether it was OK to cook frozen chicken in an Instant Pot, a representative from the company's customer service team told TODAY Food the practice is definitely safe and all a user has to do is add an additional five minutes of cooking time.
So, who’s right: the USDA or the slow-cooker device manufacturers?
In turns out, food experts also have differing opinions. Some, like Tom Super, SVP of Communications at the National Chicken Council, think it’s fine. “It is entirely safe to prepare frozen chicken in a slow cooker or crockpot as long are you are familiar with the make and model of the device,” Super, who cooks frozen chicken breasts at home in his own slow cooker device, told TODAY Food.
So, what is the USDA worried about?
It all comes down to the temperature and the timing.
“It is safe to cook a frozen chicken in a slow cooker,” Quin Patton, a food scientist formerly with PepsiCo, told TODAY. “You just need to make sure the internal temperature gets up to 165 degrees at some point during the cooking process.” The USDA confirms that 165 degrees is the minimum internal temperature for safely cooking poultry. (Ground beef, pork, lamb and veal need to reach 160 degrees.) Meat thermometers are generally easy to come by and the best-seller on Amazon is only $11.
While frozen chicken can easily reach this temperature in any slow cooker, a problem arises if it spends too much time thawing out in what the USDA calls the “danger zone.”
The danger zone is defined as the temperature range between 40 degrees and 140 degrees where bacteria grow most rapidly — and can double in number in a matter of minutes. Pamela Ellgen, author of "The Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook," cites salmonella and staphylococcus aureus as common culprits and says they can even contaminate other foods cooked alongside the chicken in the slow cooker. While the bacteria will most likely be killed when the chicken reaches 165 degrees, the toxins they grow can be heat-resistant. According to the USDA, these toxins, not the bacteria that produce them, cause food-borne illnesses.
TODAY Food asked the USDA Meat & Poultry’s public hotline about the frequency of this happening and a spokesperson said it was not something they keep records of or receive reports on from consumers.
Since some food experts think size matters, we also asked if it’s true that cooking with smaller pieces of frozen chicken decreases the likelihood of spending too much time in the so-called danger zone. “We would probably need to bring in someone from the technical staff to verify that,” said a USDA spokesperson in the media-relations department. “Basically, our recommendations are a little bit more conservative just to make sure everyone is covered.”
In this case, "everyone" refers to pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems who are particularly susceptible to getting sick. For those clients, Jackie Arnett Elnahar RD, advises against eating frozen chicken prepared in a slow cooker. For her other clients, she recommends being cognizant about the size of the frozen chicken pieces. “When you purchase the chicken, have them cleaned and cut into 2-inch cubes before putting in the freezer,” Elnahar told TODAY Food. “Or place a larger piece of frozen chicken, 4 to 6 ounces, in the slow cooker at the highest setting and start to break it down after an hour so heat is distributed more evenly throughout.”
Even though home cooks in a time crunch might be tempted to toss frozen chicken into a slow cooker, following the USDA guidelines will help cut down on the likelihood of harmful bacteria developing. Whatever you do, just don’t forget to unplug your slow cooker when you’re done using it.