Cooked chicken left out overnight is most certainly not safe to eat. Cooked chicken left out of the fridge over 2 hours is dangerous and is no longer safe to eat – it must be discarded. To reduce exposure to bacteria, it's important to store chicken correctly when it's left out of the fridge.
We've all done it—rushed to get dinner on the table after work, tossed the dishes into the sink, and realized the next day that we left some food out.
But what if you've left your cooked chicken out overnight, perhaps after leaving it to cool? Can you just pop it into the fridge and forget about it?
But why is cooked chicken so risky to eat if it has been left out overnight? We've got everything you need to know right here!
We'll also look at how to store cooked chicken safely, along with some top tips for keeping cooked chicken cool without a refrigerator.
How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out of The Fridge?
Food safety is a high priority for all home chefs, and we all try our utmost to avoid serving or eating food that might be past its best.
However, imagine the disappointment when you find the remnants of last night's roast chicken left on the counter. Do you have to throw it out?
Unfortunately, cooked chicken can sit out at room temperature for only two hours before it must be discarded. In warmer temperatures, this time limit is reduced to just one hour.
In reality, two hours is very little time! If you're buying cooked chicken from the store, you have just two hours from the time you take it from the shelf until it's in your refrigerator.
If you're in a heatwave, the race is on to get it home and chilled within an hour.
As painful as it might be to discard cooked chicken, these time limits must be adhered to. To avoid food waste, get your leftover chicken into the refrigerator as soon as it cools.
Why Does Cooked Chicken Go Bad So Quickly?
Like all meat products, whether raw or cooked, chicken will spoil quickly if left at room temperature. There are two reasons for this:
At temperatures of just 40°F and above, bacteria and microorganisms will multiply up to five times faster.
Most households maintain a room temperature of 68°F, which is a paradise for bacterial colonies.
If cooked chicken is left uncovered, it will be exposed to air and higher numbers of bacteria, resulting in bacterial density levels twice as high or more than that of raw chicken stored in a sealed container.
What Happens When Cooked Chicken Is Left Out For Too Long?
Cooked chicken that has been left out for a couple of hours will likely look and smell completely fine. You might be tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt, but we strongly recommend that you resist that temptation!
If cooked chicken has been left out at room temperature for too long, invisible bacteria will multiply to levels that are likely to cause foodborne illnesses.
So, even though your chicken might look, smell, and taste normal, many hidden dangers lurk inside!
Once this happens, it won't take long for bacteria to turn your cooked chicken into a rotten, slimy, putrid mess. At that stage, you definitely wouldn't consider eating it.
What Health Problems Can Be Caused By Spoiled Cooked Chicken?
If you eat cooked chicken that has marginally spoiled, in many cases, you'll be absolutely fine with no side effects. However, high levels of bacteria may mean you risk a nasty case of food poisoning.
And, as anyone who has ever suffered from food poisoning will tell you, it's not worth the risk.
Symptoms of food poisoning include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, lethargy, dizziness, and bloody stools. In severe cases, dehydration can occur, and hospitalization may be necessary.
Seriously, don't mess with chicken when it comes to food poisoning!
How Can You Tell If Cooked Chicken Is Spoiled?
The problem is that you can't always tell if cooked chicken is spoiled. Chicken that has been left out at room temperature for an hour or two may look, smell, and feel completely normal.
However, there's a significant risk that harmful bacteria and microorganisms will already have multiplied to the point that the chicken is unfit for consumption.
So, if you're in any doubt, throw it out!
But what if you're unsure how long your cooked chicken has been left out? Perhaps you came home from work to find that your teenager left it out of the fridge? Or you're dealing with the remnants of a cold buffet and are unsure how long the chicken has been on the table?
Here are some telltale signs that cooked chicken is spoiled and going rotten:
Cooked chicken doesn't smell quite as bad as raw chicken when it starts to go bad, but it will still have a noticeable smell. Freshly cooked chicken should have barely any smell at all.
Freshly cooked chicken meat is either white or brown, depending on whether it's breast or leg meat. As it starts to deteriorate, it will develop a greenish-blue sheen, and you might even see a fine layer of mold.
Changes in texture are a telltale sign that your cooked chicken has started to go bad. When rotten, cooked chicken feels slimy to the touch—this is a sign that bacteria are accumulating on the surface of the chicken. Yuck!
Remember, you may not see any of these signs that your cooked chicken has gone bad, but that doesn't mean it's OK to eat! If in doubt, throw it out and find something else for dinner.
How To Safely Leave Cooked Chicken Out at Room Temperature
Hopefully, at this point, we haven't completely put you off eating chicken. Chicken is a firm favorite in many family kitchens and can be enjoyed as long as you follow a few simple rules.
Just imagine the delightful aroma and flavor of a golden whole roast chicken, deliciously juicy BBQ legs and wings, or a succulent chicken salad—absolutely delicious!
If you've bought some cooked chicken from the store or have some in the fridge, you might need to leave it out at room temperature before eating. Let's take a look at the best way to do this safely:
The absolute maximum time your cooked chicken can sit out is two hours at temperatures below 90°F and an hour at temperatures above this.
Remember, this is the maximum time. The sooner your cooked chicken goes into the fridge or is consumed, the better.
If you are buying cooked chicken from the store, make the butcher counter your last stop before heading home.
Pack the cooked chicken with any other chilled goods you've purchased to help keep it cool. A cool bag can be a worthwhile investment, especially if you live in a warm climate.
The temperature of a room is critical when it comes to how long cooked chicken meat can sit out safely.
It might sound extremely hot, but on a sunny day, it's not unrealistic for temperatures of 90°F to be reached inside a busy kitchen.
To stay safe, make use of cool, shaded areas in the kitchen for your cooked chicken, or use a cooler room in the house.
Remember that it's not just heat that causes cooked chicken to spoil—exposure to air is also a significant factor. Keep cooked chicken covered at all times, ideally in an airtight bag or container.
How To Store Cooked Chicken Safely
The general rule is that cooked chicken can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. So if you've got some raw chicken that is nearing its use-by date, cooking it will give you a few more days to eat it.
Cooked chicken should be stored in an airtight container or bag at the bottom of the fridge to avoid contamination with other foods.
If you have cooked chicken that will be consumed, chilled, or frozen within one hour, it can be left out at room temperature. Chicken that won't be consumed within four days should be frozen rather than refrigerated.
How To Reheat Cooked Chicken Safely
Firstly, cooked chicken should only be reheated once. This is the golden rule for all foods: it can be heated once to cook it and one more time to reheat it. After that, you can eat it cold, but you should not reheat it again.
Imagine you have some roast chicken left over from the weekend, and you cook up a big batch of chicken curry the next day with the leftovers. Theoretically, you can't reheat this curry, as it has already been heated twice.
And although many people disregard this rule, every time the meat is reheated, there's an opportunity for bacteria to multiply.
Chilling, freezing, and cooking the meat doesn't kill these bacteria, so they will lurk inside your leftovers, ready to wreak gastrointestinal havoc.
So, bearing in mind the "reheat only once" rule, these are the best ways to reheat cooked chicken:
In The Oven
This method is best for chicken that has a crispy texture, such as breaded chicken drumsticks or fried chicken thighs.
Set the chicken on a wire rack over a baking sheet and place it in an oven preheated to 400°F. Bake the chicken for 15 minutes and eat it right away.
In The Microwave
You won't be able to keep the chicken crispy in the microwave, but this is a great method for quickly warming up some shredded cooked chicken for a post-school snack.
Place the chicken on a plate and drizzle with a splash of water, oil, or chicken broth. Cover loosely with microwave-safe wrap and heat on full power for at least two minutes.
On The Stove
This is how most people reheat cooked chicken, as it's one of the best ingredients to add to a midweek stovetop dinner.
You can cook any liquid-based dish as usual and simply add your cooked chicken pieces for the final few minutes of cooking time.
In The Air Fryer
Have a glut of crispy chicken wings? Pop them into the air fryer, and they'll come out perfectly crisp and fresh! A spritz with air fryer-safe cooking spray will add an extra level of crispiness.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long can cooked chicken be stored in the freezer?
Cooked chicken can be safely stored in the freezer for up to 4 months. This is a great method for preserving cooked chicken that will not be eaten before it spoils.
However, the taste and texture of cooked chicken can deteriorate quickly in the freezer, so it must be carefully packaged to protect against freezer burn.
The best way to prevent freezer burn is to use airtight containers. Placing the chicken in a Ziplock bag or wrapping it in a layer of plastic wrap will also help prevent exposure to air.
How should cooked chicken be defrosted?
Frozen cooked chicken should ideally be defrosted under chilled conditions, such as in the refrigerator or a cold water bath. This method takes longer but is the safest way to defrost the cooked chicken.
If you're in a hurry, cooked chicken can be defrosted at room temperature. However, it should be consumed within an hour of defrosting or placed back in the refrigerator.
Cooked chicken can also be thawed using the microwave's defrost setting. If you use this method, the chicken must be consumed or reheated as soon as it has thawed.
This is because the microwave will begin to warm the cooked chicken, creating the perfect conditions for bacteria to multiply.