How to Roast a Whole Chicken (and safely defrost meat)

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If you've never cooked a whole chicken before, I'm showing step-by-step how easy it is to roast in the oven. This is a great way to feed the whole family and have leftovers for other delicious meals. I've adapted this recipe from the Williams Sonoma French Cookbook.
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How to thaw a chicken quickly and safely roasted chicken with a lemon on a cooling rack.

Cooking a whole chicken is economical, easy, and delicious. Once you decide to give up conventional, factory-farmed meat (that’s oftentimes laced with antibiotics) and switch to the humanely-raised, organic variety instead, it’s no secret that the price goes up. To offset this increase in cost you can do two things – select cuts of meat that are less expensive per pound (like a whole chicken) and/or eat less meat all together. Get the most out of your groceries with this guide on how to thaw chicken quickly, and safely before trying out the perfect rosemary chicken in the oven!

How to Thaw Chicken Quickly and Safely

For all those who have never cooked a whole chicken before…have no fear because it’s easy to do! And this even applies to people like me who don’t like to actually handle or touch whole, raw chickens. :) I normally cook whole chickens in my slow cooker, but have recently become fond of roasting chicken as well (details below).

Now before you get started, it’s important to make sure you aren’t trying to cook a frozen chicken. Easier said than done?

When I used to buy standard grocery store chicken this was never an issue, but now that I shop at the farmers’ market I’ve found that almost all of the local meat is sold frozen. And just the other day I was supposed to be roasting a chicken that was—yes—still frozen, which prompted me to do some research on how to defrost chicken safely.

Time to safely defrost meat varies by method and weight of the frozen meat

The ideal way to defrost meat is in the fridge overnight.

  • A small chicken or turkey (5 pounds or less) usually can defrost in 24 hours or less
  • large whole chicken or turkey can take 2-3 days to safely defrost in a refrigerator

The next best method is to place the frozen meat in a plastic bag, or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and place it in a cold water bath. The USDA website recommends changing the water every 30 minutes. After using the cold water method for defrosting, it is best to cook the meat right away. Absolutely do not refreeze or refrigerate the raw meat for another day!

  • Small packages of meat, chicken, or seafood (1 pound or less) can thaw in an hour or less
  • 3-4 pound packages may take 2 or 3 hours
  • A whole frozen chicken or turkey should be estimated by 30 minutes per pound

I admit that for years I used to just throw a frozen pack of meat on the counter for a few hours if I needed it in time for dinner. We obviously lived to tell about it with no problems, but what I’ve learned is that using cold water to defrost meat is not only safer but actually MUCH faster than just leaving it on the counter to fend for itself.

The USDA says “Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter, or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.” Oops…better late than never I guess! If you want to know how to thaw chicken quickly and safely as possible, remember to keep these things in mind!

What to do if You’re Unsure About Defrosting Meat

Since life just gets in the way sometimes, here are some more tips that might come in handy when you don’t exactly remember to follow the rules above:

  • If you accidentally defrost your meat in warm water (as I also did recently) – the USDA does not consider this to be a “safe” method – but if you want to roll the dice (which apparently my facebook community does a lot with no problems) be sure to cook the meat right away and cook it thoroughly.
  • Two hours is the key number – perishable foods should “not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.” I use this guideline when putting away leftovers and groceries as well. The USDA specifically advises to not leave perishable foods in the “Danger Zone” temperature range for more than 2 hours. The “Danger Zone” is between 40 and 140 °F (i.e. anything warmer than your fridge, but not warm enough to cook) and is when bacteria begins to multiply. Just say “no” to the multiplying bacteria (well, “bad” bacteria that is). :)
  • When all else fails the USDA website says, “It is safe to cook foods from the frozen state. The cooking will take approximately 50% longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry.” Good to know!

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78 thoughts on “How to Roast a Whole Chicken (and safely defrost meat)”

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  1. Where did I go wrong? I tried this recipe with disastrous results. The olive oil smoked so bad that I had to ditch the whole affair and cook it in the crock-pot instead. (I had planned to serve this yesterday for Thanksgiving since there was just the three of us…needless to say we had sides and dessert only for Thanksgiving.) The directions said 425, is that the whole time or are you supposed to lower the temp? It really did turn out well in the Crock-pot, but I’d like to see if you can help me figure out why I almost lit my house on fire ;)

  2. Hello!!! Quick question, why don’t you cook the chicken with the meat thermometer in the leg/breast? Very curious. Thanks!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Claire. You know I can’t give you the science behind it but that is where it is recommended that a thermometer be place on a whole chicken. :) ~Amy

      1. Hi Amy, thanks for your response, but I think you misunderstood. My question is why is the thermometer not left in the chicken while baking? The instructions specifically say to remove it while baking. Thanks!

      2. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

        Oh sorry. :) I know my fast read thermometer specifically says do not leave in while baking/roasting. ~Amy

      3. 5 stars
        This is only for “Fast Reading” type thermometers. It should say in your instruction manual whether you can leave it in or not.

    2. You don’t leave it in normally because the temperature can be thrown off by the oven itself sometimes. Other thermometers might also not be oven proof on the top portions, just the bottom part that you stick in the meat.

  3. 5 stars
    This is without a doubt, the best roasted chicken we have ever eaten. Tender, juicy (but not too juicy), and beautiful. I have ordered your cookbook and it will be here in two days. I cannot wait!

  4. The USDA has a wonderful food-safety website called AskKaren.gov. You can submit a question and they will respond to you within 24 hours. There is also a live chat during specific hours. I have used it several times, once when planning a camping trip and once when planning a large school dinner for 30 family’s at my son’s school. (I’ve had food poisoning a few times, so I definitely didn’t want to inflict that on anyone else!). They’re answers are very thorough and helpful, I’ve been very impressed by it.
    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/informational/askkaren

  5. 4 stars
    Well, a big disappointment on my end. I thought I read that the chicken would be done at 160 degrees at the thickest part of the thigh. This resulted in an undercooked breast upon further examination. Well, even though the chicken was a messy bust for me this time around, I did manage to make Paula Dean’s “The Lady’s Chicken Soup” minus the dairy products and it was delicious. I highly suggest that soup (nom nom nom) It did make delicious gravy too! Although it wasn’t quite done enough, there were still drippings galore!

  6. I think I like this chicken more than the crockpot version but still thankful for these whole chicken recipes. Before Lisa, I never made whole chicken. Thank you

  7. I was wondering if you had a guide as to how long meat will stay good in the freezer? I am always confused about this an end up throwing out way more than I should.

  8. Hooray! I have no roasting pan, and have been searching for a way to create one for chicken roasting, which I have yet to do. I’m so excited to try this out. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Our family is only a few weeks into eating only Real foods, so if this isn’t a a very bright question, y’all forgive me, okay?! Planning on making the oven roasted chicken for dinner tonight, but I have NO fresh rosemary… is dried rosemary an okay substitute in this recipe, and how much would I use?
    Also, I wanted to thank you, Lisa. You have been a huge inspiration, teacher, and my go-to girl for all recipes. You’ll never know what you’ve done for my family!!!

  10. Thank you for the thorough information on this post! I’m preparing a large meal with several roast chickens for Rosh Hashanah, and needed some tips on the best quick defrost methods.

  11. I recently cooked a large turkey from frozen with great success. I was skeptical, but it was true that it took an extra 50% of the time per pound and turned out well. The only issue I had was that you couldn’t pull the giblets out from the inside and boil them up to use in gravy and dressing. Oh well! It was an easy way to make a turkey in July when the fridge wasn’t big enough for defrosting and there’s no way I was about to leave it on the counter overnight to defrost!

  12. Peggy Griffith

    I have always defrosted my meat on the counter or I warm water…to cook that evening. Still here to tell about it! ;). I rarely can plan ahead enough to defrost the proper way! Lol except Thanksgiving! Also, try roasting your chicken on the grill, using one of those stands…or better yet, try smoking! Delicious!

  13. I made this today and it turned out good but it took a LONG time. Like 1.5 hrs. Is that right?? I will try to time it better last time. We have a thermometer in our oven so I know the temp was right. Very easy to make!

    1. Ginger, it has always taken my chickens an hour and half to cook at 450. My birds are typically 3.5 lbs.

  14. Hi Lisa,
    I have an unrelated question. Are you familiar with the book “Wheat Belly” by William Davis, M.D? If so, what are your feelings about it? Please respond.
    Sandy

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Sandy. I know that Lisa and Jason are planning a post on wheat in near future. In the mean time, here are some thoughts from Jason on the subject:
      “For people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, it obviously makes sense to avoid wheat.
      For others trying to find the source of a health issue, temporarily avoiding wheat (and other foods) as part of an elimination diet makes sense. If reintroduction causes no problem, I see no reason to avoid it.
      The food industry has starting plastering “gluten free” on all kinds of food (many of which are junk), and a lot of people think they are making healthier choices when they may not be.
      While wheat has changed through selective breeding in past decades/centuries, but so have many other foods we eat.
      I tried to read the book Wheat Belly but just could not finish it. I felt like I was wasting my time (I am very busy…) since I felt like I was reading a diet book (and being sold to). I also felt it suffered from confirmation bias.
      We recommend consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, which automatically reduces the amount of grains (and meat) we consume, including wheat.
      We recommend eating a wide variety of foods (and colors), and this extends to grains. Personally we also eat brown rice, wild rice, oats, spelt, quinoa, etc.
      We have no health issues attributed to wheat (to our knowledge…we are pretty healthy really) and like it, so we eat it in it’s whole food form.
      Our site is about cutting out processed foods. There’s a spectrum of healthy eaters – on one end you have people just starting their journey, and on the other you have people sprouting their grains, making cheese, and fermenting. We follow the 80/20 rule in general and feel the average person can do the most good by avoiding the highly processed stuff. We try to help them do that. If people wish to take things further (including eliminating wheat if that makes sense FOR THEM), that’s fine. There’s no one diet that’s right for everyone. Hopefully those that choose to do so still find value in the website.”

      Hope that helps. ~Amy

  15. I LOVE roast chicken, and I’m so sick that the oven in our new place (a travel trailer with a 12x15x5″ oven) can’t fit a whole one! My partner claims we can roast one in quarters, but we’ve yet to try it.

    I usually tie the legs together with some kitchen twine or dental floss, though, just for aesthetics.

  16. My favorite cooking show, which airs on my local PBS station, is called Cook’s Country. They recommend removing the backbone from the whole chicken so you are able to flatten the chicken on your grill and ensure the different meats (dark & light) cook to perfection. :)
    R

  17. 5 stars
    Tried this recipe over the weekend and it turned out GREAT! It was juicy and tender. Made some collard greens to go along with it. My family loved it. They told me it was the best chicken they had roasted… :) Packing lunch for today was easy. I just made a salad and threw in some of the leftover chicken. Definitely will use this recipe again! I am going to use the bones for making my chicken stock this evening!!!! Thanks for sharing your meal suggestions and recipes with the world!!!! Your website is making a huge difference in my relationship with food!

  18. Organic whole chickens are really pricey where I live. Strangely, you can buy a whole free range rotisserie chicken (with less than 5 ingredients) at our co-op for only $9.99. So, I usually end up going that route because it’s delish and you can still make stock.

  19. This looks very tasty. We roast chicken in a glass lasagna dish on top of roughly chopped celery, carrots, and onions. The juices brown around the vegetables and make them jaw-droppingly rich, tender, and delicious.

  20. I roast a whole chicken almost once a week these days. I love the way
    It tastes! So much better than frozen tenders:) I think my almost $15
    Organic free range chicken made three dinners for my family of four,
    As well as enough chicken stock for at least two batches of homemade
    Soup for lunches. Worth every penny!

  21. This probably wouldn’t work well for an entire chicken, but I recently discovered this trick that is faster than the cold water method:

    You need a heavy aluminium or cast iron pan. All you have to do is set the frozen meat, chicken or fish onto the pan making sure that as much surface as possible is touching the pan and the meat will begin to defrost quickly. After it is thawed half way through you can opt to flip it on the other side.

    Why does this work? It actually has to do with a bit of science. The metal of the pan is defusing the cold of the meat, in a way drawing it out of the meat.

    I find that chicken and steak ususally thaw enough in 30 – 45 minutes that I can begin to cook with it.

  22. Oh have mercy I am glad you wrote this. I definitely have not been doing it the safe way. Oops! Guess I know now, thanks! And thanks for a new recipe! We started buying a lot of whole chickens to use as sandwich meat for the next day. This sounds good!

  23. Thanks for the tips!
    About how many times per week des your family consume animal products? I am a vegan but there are 6 other people in our family.
    They are dairy free/wheat free and eat animal products about 2x/week. I am trying to even cut that down and just stick to whole/plant based foods for them.
    Peace & Raw Health,
    Elizabeth (Mother of 5)

  24. 4 stars
    I roast a chicken several times a month – then we can easily have fried rice, black bean and chicken tacos, soup, etc. for the next few weeks. As soon as I’ve gotten the meat off, I pull out my crockpot and make this super simple chicken stock – it’s so easy there is no excuse not to make it, and then I pop it in the freezer in mason jars and I always have home made stock on hand. Here’s my foolproof method: http://behealthybehappywellness.com/2012/12/easiest-ever-chicken-stock-for-free/

  25. 5 stars
    Lisa! YES!! My husband and I have found roasting whole chickens is SO MUCH BETTER for your money! Our local butcher sells herb-fed chickens and they are delicious! We’ll have Sunday roast & then use pieces of chicken all week! Not to mention, being able to make a homemade chicken stock with the carcass! I love that you’re sharing these wonderful tips! The real food movement, YES!

  26. Hey, how about cutting up a whole chicken when you want to cook individual pieces? One of the handiest magazine clippings my mother-in-law gave to me, about 30 years ago, was an article showing how to cut up a whole chicken. Not one of my favorite tasks, but there are times when it’s handy to do it. We buy chickens from a friend here in the rural midwest; she charges about $10 a bird for non-gmo-fed, and $14 for organic-fed. Make friends with farmers! :)

  27. Can’t wait to try roasting a chicken! I typically just throw mine in the slow cooker and toss it in 3 recipes for the week.
    I second the comment above about the expense. $25 for a tiny bird that has little meat is ridiculous, although I guess I understand with all the drought problems.

  28. In that picture, it looks like your cooling rack has a non-stick coating. Is that true? I’ve been trying to find cooling racks that aren’t coated because I didn’t think you could use the coated ones for roasting. I have 3 coated ones and would be so happy if I could use them for this. :)

    1. Yes, it does…I have been trying to replace the non-stick kitchen tools that we have, but we still have a few left like these racks and it worked just fine for this!

  29. Hello! A friend told me about your blog and I have been a fan ever since. I have not been able to try your recipes yet, or try the whole food challenge for more complicated reasons. In the next month I will be able to start making some of these changes and I am very excited about it! Thank you for being an inspiration!

    I also wanted to mention that in step 5 you say “measuring up”. I like the way it sounds, but you may want to fix it :)

    Thanks again for all the wonderful information.

  30. Yes, definitely use those bones to make chicken stock. And, like you, I love to cook a whole chicken in the crock pot–especially in the summer when it’s painful to have my oven on for that long. And then I save the juices and bones and make a yummy chicken stock. It freezes well, too. I haven’t had to purchase stock since realizing I can make my own since it makes plenty.

  31. A great recipe and a great post topic! I usually roast my chickens with a little TSP (thyme, salt, pepper) and chicken bouillon granules…but the rosemary would definitely be delicious as well! Thanks!

  32. After dinner, pull the leftover meat off the bones and use for another meal. Don’t waste those bones. Put all the bones and pan drippings in a crock pot with water, onion, carrot, celery and seasoning. Let simmer on low overnight. In the morning, strain the stock. This will be great chicken stock to use for soup the next night or freeze for future use.

  33. I can’t find a local source for chicken that sells whole chickens for less than $25 each! It’s not just more expensive, it’s ridiculous. Maybe where you are, the price is more reasonable! I have to settle for organic at the store, although we can get local, grass fed beef at the farmer’s market during the summer. Anyway, I like to “stuff” the whole chicken with a cut up lemon and some garlic, or maybe a cut up apple. Put some liquid like wine or stock in the roasting pan and cover it for all but the last 20 min or so, then uncover and baste to crisp up the skin. So good, especially because I can turn the leftovers into so many yummy things!

  34. I love roast chicken. It is one of my absolute favorites! But, I keep it super simple.
    Rub butter on the chicken, salt it, let it sit to room temperature. (You can also put it the fridge for a few hours, but bring it to room temp before roasting) Preheat oven to 475 or even 500 degrees. Maybe 45 min or so. The skin will be crisp and the inside will be tender and juicy.

    Thanks for all you do.