Warming up to the idea of cooking frozen chicken

April 10, 2002|By Rob Kasper

THAWING TAKES time. Often I feel like a captive of frozen crystals, waiting for some frozen hunk of protein to gradually abandon its rigid state and be ready to be tossed in the oven or on the grill.

As an impatient thawer, I have employed a variety of techniques to hurry the process along. I have become a prier, forcing frozen pieces apart with a knife, to allow air to circulate and do its liberating work. Occasionally, very occasionally, I have planned around the thaw, placing a frozen chicken in the refrigerator early in the morning, so it will be safely defrosted in time for the evening meal.

But many nights, as the dinner hour approached, the supper entree has resembled a frosty slab. Then I have resorted to using two unsatisfying thawing techniques. One is defrosting the slab in the microwave oven, a speedy process that seems to sometimes leave the once-frozen flesh dry and mealy. The other is the water-bath method, plunging the frozen fare, still wrapped in plastic, into a pool of cold water. Total thaw still takes a while, meaning this technique is useful only in the early afternoon, when you have a few hours before the hungry horde hits the kitchen table.

Recently I tried a new way to beat the problem of the long thaw: I cooked chicken cold. I took frozen chicken breasts right from a freezer bag, plopped them in a baking dish and baked them in the oven. Forty-five minutes later, they were served as supper. While the flavor of these freezer-dwelling chicken breasts would never be mistaken for that of juicy free-range birds, they were moist and took kindly to a honey-mustard sauce.

These were not standard-issue chicken breasts. They were pampered pieces that had been bathed in chicken broth and then coated with an ice glaze to keep the pieces from sticking together. Rather than arriving in the kitchen as a large frozen lump, these breasts traveled as well-preserved individuals, encased in a thick, reclosable plastic freezer bag. It was easy to remove a few frozen breasts from the bag, close it and toss it back in the freezer, saving the remaining pieces for a future meal.

While the idea of cooking without thawing was novel to me, representatives of two large chicken processors, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, told me the concept had been around for a while. Tyson launched its Individually Frozen Chicken, a process that marinates each piece through tumbling or injection, in 1995. The big breakthrough, it seems, was when improved technology allowed pieces of chicken to be frozen individually without sticking together in the package.

The Tyson line of no-thaw products as well as Perdue Individually Frozen offerings are sold in the frozen-food section of supermarkets. The no-thaw product category "is still catching on," according to Chris Whaley, a Perdue spokeswoman, who added that "Folks who don't shop in the frozen-food aisle may not even know these products are in the store."

Priced higher than fresh whole chickens but in the same range as fresh boneless breasts - a 2 1/2 -pound package of extra-lean, boneless and skinless breasts runs about $3.59 a pound - the individually frozen chicken parts seem to be aimed at people who want quick meals. They also appear to appeal to folks who forget, or don't want to bother, to take something out of the freezer hours before mealtime.

"It is for people with busy lifestyles," said Whaley. "For people who don't always plan dinner as soon as they get up in the morning."

According to a survey conducted for Tyson Foods, 44 percent of household cooks don't decide what they are fixing for dinner until the meal is less than four hours away.

The other night, when I was scrambling to put together supper for my family, I fell into that category of last-minute decision makers.

I reached into the freezer for some individually frozen chicken breasts. I rinsed four frozen pieces off with lukewarm water (to remove the ice glaze). Then, even though it felt foreign to me, I placed the cold, rigid chicken in a foil-lined pan. Next I sprinkled the pieces with paprika, topped them with lemon slices and put them in the oven. After baking them in a 375-degree oven for 30 minutes, I pulled them out, brushed a honey-mustard sauce on them and put them back in the oven for 15 more minutes. That was when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the breast showed an internal temperature of 165 degrees. The breasts were done, from frigid cold to sizzling, in 45 minutes.

The no-thaw chicken was pretty well-received on the home front. I don't know that I would cook it every night. But on those nights when supper has to be on the table in an hour, and every possible entree is frozen solid, it could be a nice backup.

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