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.
Taking a shortcut with a recipe, however, isn't always the safest way to make a meal. Take frozen chicken, for example. Many cooks don't think twice about tossing a few frozen chicken breasts into a slow cooker — and the internet is filled with plenty of recipes that list frozen poultry as an ingredient. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says otherwise.
So why is cooking frozen chicken unsafe?
According to the slow cooker and food safety guidelines from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, it's imperative to "always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker." If this is news to you, you’re not alone. Not all of our favorite slow cookers come with consistent warning labels.
When asked about using frozen chicken in slow cookers, a representative for Crock-Pot told TODAY Food via email, "You can cook frozen meat in any Crock-Pot brand product, but suggested cook time may need to be increased."
The company also recommends using a meat thermometer to ensure that the internal temperature of the chicken is "well above" 165 degrees before consumption.
"We recommend that you refer to your product’s instruction manual as well for specific instructions and guidance," the company representative told TODAY.
The instruction manual for Crock-Pot's 3.5-quart slow cooker 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."
What about other countertop cooking devices?
Instant Pot, the headline-making pressure cooking device with a cult-like following, has instructions on its website that say there's no need to defrost frozen food prior to cooking it. While it doesn't specify frozen chicken, the guidelines advise consumers to plan mealtime accordingly since "frozen food will prolong the pre-heating time and cooking time."
When asked whether it's OK to cook frozen chicken in an Instant Pot, a representative from the company's customer service team told TODAY the practice is definitely safe and advised home cooks to simply tack on an additional five minutes of cooking time.
Food experts also have differing opinions adding frozen chicken into slow cookers. Some, like Tom Super, senior vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council, think it’s fine.
"It is entirely safe to prepare frozen chicken in a slow cooker or Crock-Pot as long are you are familiar with the make and model of the device," Super told TODAY.
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 all need to reach 160 degrees). Meat thermometers are easy to find, with many highly rated models starting at just $11.
While frozen chicken can easily reach this temperature in any slow cooker, a problem arises if that poultry 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 and 140 degrees, where bacteria grows most rapidly.
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 its required temperature, the toxins that grow may be heat resistant. According to the USDA, these toxins, not the bacteria that produce them, cause food-borne illnesses.
TODAY asked the USDA Meat and Poultry’s public hotline about the frequency of this happening and a spokesperson said it was not something they currently 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 food 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. “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, nutritionist Jackie Arnett Elnahar 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 said. “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."
While 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.