There are many situations when you can find yourself with a cooked chicken left on the counter for several hours or even overnight.
Maybe you have guests that are a bit late as guests usually are, and you prepared your meal hoping that they will arrive on time.
Or you had chicken for dinner and forgot to store the leftover chicken in the refrigerator; I know it happened to me.
So it is ok to ask yourself if the cooked chicken is still safe to eat after it stays out for several hours.
For those situations, I did some research to find out the answers.
How long can you leave cooked chicken out
Cooked chicken can be left out for two hours if the room temperature is between 40-140 degrees F. This is the temperature in which harmful bacteria have bigger chances to grow, according to the Food Safety And Inspection Service from the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.
So even if the cooked food looks good and is still tasty after two hours, there are significantly more chances that it can give you food poisoning.
Therefore I recommend you not take the risk with a cooked chicken left outside for several hours or overnight; no matter who tells you that it is ok, the taste and texture may be ok, but that’s it.
Be aware of an undercooked chicken. The USDA recommends your chicken be cooked until it reaches the internal temperature of 165 degrees F for several minutes. This will make sure that all the harmful bacteria from the chicken are killed and make it safe to eat.
If somehow you undercooked your chicken, the two-hour rule will not apply since the bacteria will have the chance to reproduce much faster.
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Does a plastic wrap or airtight container help preserve your chicken for longer?
Wrapping the cooked chicken in plastic wrap or putting it into an airtight container will not help it last longer than two hours if left outside.
It only prevents the other bacteria that are not yet inside your chicken from reaching the food, but that doesn’t mean that it is safe to eat after more than two hours since bacteria will grow inside it anyway. A way to slow the bacteria from growing is to put the preserved chicken in the fridge.
Does the cooking method impact how long the chicken will last?
The cooking method does not impact how much time cooked chicken can be left outside and still be safe to eat.
Adding extra ingredients can even lower the time you can leave cooked chicken outside. For example, adding any sauce containing dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese can boost the bacteria reproduction, so there are real chances that the cooked chicken will go bad even faster.
Or making breaded chicken with eggs can also have the same effect. Also, if your chicken is going bad, it will be hard to notice due to its egg coating.
Using an acidic source that is based on lemon juice or vinegar can help a bit since it can kill some bacteria, but it is not safe to count on this to kill all the bacteria that will grow inside. So the two-hour rule, if kept on the danger zone of 40-140 degrees F, is the safest in this case.
Can you refrigerate cooked chicken?
Yes, refrigerated chicken can last three to four days if refrigerated properly in an airtight container or carefully sealed with plastic wrap.
When you want to refrigerate the cooked chicken, make sure you let it cool first, then use an airtight container or a plastic wrap and place it into the coldest part of the refrigerator.
Can cooked chicken be frozen?
Cooked chicken can stay in the freezer for three to four months. In order to store chicken in the freezer properly, you should follow the same rule as for keeping it in the refrigerator.
Do not simply throw a cooked chicken in the freezer. You have to wait until it is completely cool, place it in a zip lock or an airtight container, and label it with the date you put it inside the freezer.
Labeling your food before storing it in the freezer can help a lot since there are big chances you will forget the exact date you put it in there, especially if you do this with other food.
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How to know cooked chicken has gone bad
Smell. The smell of your cooked chicken is a big warning sign. If somehow it has a much stronger smell than it usually has, or it has a sour smell, you most probably need to discard it.
Texture. If you notice any change in the texture of your cooked chicken, for example, it is softer, slimmer, or sticky, it would be safer to throw it away.
In the case of the cooked chicken from the freezer, you will not notice those changes until it thaws.
Color. The color of cooked chicken is white or brown, while when it goes bad, it will most probably be grey or greenish colored.
There also should not be any weird spot or decoloration on your cooked chicken.
Mold. The appearance of mold is a clear sign that your cooked chicken has gone bad. There should be no hesitation in throwing away any food with visible mold.
So if you notice any or more of the signs mentioned above, throw away the chicken immediately.
How to choose a good chicken
To assure that the chicken will last outside at least the two hours it should, you better pick the freshest chicken from the market. Because if somehow the chicken is not fresh from the moment you bought it, there are bigger chances it will go bad faster.
So here are a few signs you should look for when you buy chicken.
- Color, a fresh chicken should have a pink flesh. If somehow it is grey, you better avoid buying it. Yellow coloration can be due to extra fat or a diet with a lot of corn.
- Liquid content. It is quite normal to see a bit of liquid in the package, but it should not be too much.
- Packaging. Make sure that the package is sealed perfectly without any rips.
- The temperature. The chicken should be kept in a refrigerator that is working correctly. If you notice that the refrigerator smells bad when you open it, it is an indication that the temperature is too high.
- The smell. There is no way the chicken stored properly in a freezer should smell bad.
- The date. Last but not least and quite obvious, it is to check the expiration date from the packaging. You should buy the chicken that will expire last and make sure not to buy any chicken that doesn’t have an expiration date on it.
No matter how you cook your chicken, you should not eat it if it is left outside for more than two hours at room temperature.
To ensure you will not be in this situation, make sure you don’t cook more food than you need. If you have guests, it is no shame to ask them if they will make it on time when you start cooking.
Lastly, remind yourself to store your cooked chicken in the fridge if you plan to eat it in the next three or four days or the freezer if you don’t plan to eat it soon.