Made too much cooked chicken? That’s not a problem if you have some space in the freezer. While cooked chicken will last for up to a week in the fridge, freezing is the better option if you want to preserve the bird for a longer period. Since the chicken is already cooked, you can prepare it for freezing in no time. So the answer to the question “can you freeze cooked chicken?” is “definitely!”. In this article we will go through prepping cooked chicken for freezing, defrosting it. We will also outline ways of using defrosted chicken leftovers.
How to Freeze Cooked Chicken
The whole process of freezing cooked chicken is very simple. It consists of five steps: prepping, cooling down, portioning, packaging, and throwing into the freezer. Here is a step-by-step guide to freezing cooked chicken:
- Prepping. Boneless chicken freezes best and is the most versatile to prepare after defrosting. Because of that, start off by removing any bones. Leave the skin on or remove it depending on your preference. Shredding the chicken meat is also a good idea because it will allow you to easily portion the chicken. Plus shredded chicken thaws much faster.
- Cooling down. The faster you can cool down the chicken, the better. While some guides recommend throwing the cooked chicken right into the fridge for cooling, I wouldn’t do that. That would significantly increase the temperature in the fridge and likely affect other food stored in the freezer. Instead, start off by spreading the chicken in an even layer and leave the chicken at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. This speeds up the cooling process significantly. Plus, as long as you put the chicken into the fridge within 2 hours of cooking, you should be fine. Once the initial cooling down is done, transfer the cooked chicken into the fridge for at least an hour to lower its temperature further. I usually leave it in the fridge overnight.
- Portioning. When portioning, consider how you will be using the chicken in the future. Meal-size portions are best, but it’s not always easy to figure out how much is a meal-size portion. Many small portions is usually a better option than few big ones. This way, you can easily defrost one more portion if needed.
- Packaging. If you’re freezing only the chicken, use freezer bags. Freezer bags take less freezer space. Make sure to label each bag with a name and a date. If you’re freezing chicken as a part of a meal, use food containers. Food containers allow you to layer and separate the food better. Here’s how shredded Hawaiian BBQ chicken with rice (under the chicken) and roasted veggies looks like in a food container:
- Throw the packaged chicken into the freezer.
While frozen cooked chicken will last indefinitely, its quality slowly drops over time. Because of that, it’s recommended to consume the chicken within 3 months.
How to Defrost Frozen Cooked Chicken
There are a few ways of defrosting the cooked chicken, depending on your needs and time constraints:
- Overnight in the fridge. This is the recommended method. Just transfer the chicken from the freezer to the refrigerator and leave it to thaw overnight. In the morning it’s ready to go.
- Room temperature. Many sources say you should avoid defrosting chicken at room temperature. The possibility of bacterial growth is high when the chicken is left sitting at room temperature for too long. If you need to thaw the chicken within a few hours and don’t want to bother with other methods, room temperature is an option. Use it at your own risk though. I often forget to defrost the chicken overnight and just leave it on the counter for 2 hours before cooking and never had any issues with it. But maybe I’m just lucky.
- Ice bath. An ice bath is a good option if you want to defrost the chicken rapidly. Just put the chicken in a container filled with cold water and leave the chicken submerged for half an hour. Make sure the package is sealed before submerging the chicken into water or keep the seal above water. Obviously, this method works much better for chicken stored in freezer bags than in containers.
- Microwave. If you’re in a real hurry, using the microwave to defrost the cooked chicken is always an option.
- Throw it in frozen. If you’re making a soup or a stew, you can just add the frozen chicken as the dish cooks. Make sure to cook the meal for longer to account for chicken defrosting. And remember to give it a stir every now and then so the clumped chicken pieces separate. If the chicken will be used as a part of a stir-fry, throwing it in frozen is an option too. Make sure you start off on fairly low heat to give the chicken some time to defrost.
How to Use Defrosted Cooked Chicken
Defrosted chicken can be used in pretty much in every meal you would use the cooked chicken in. The taste of a defrosted cooked chicken might not be as good as the taste of freshly cooked chicken. You might need to experiment a bit to find meals that work best for you. Here are some ideas that you can try for your chicken leftovers:
- Pasta sauce/Sauce for rice
- As is, reheated on a pan
- Meal prep (preparing and freezing the whole meal, not just the chicken)