One of the awesome things about chickens is that cooking a whole one can make several meals worth of finger-lickin’ protein. However, whether fried, boiled, baked, or grilled, cooked chicken has a definite “safe to eat” window.
How long is refrigerated cooked chicken safe to eat?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has clear-cut guidelines on how long you should keep chicken in the fridge before eating it becomes a game of food poisoning Russian roulette:
- Raw chicken: 1 to 2 days
- Cooked chicken: 3 to 4 days
This is assuming your fridge is at a bacteria-slowing below 40°F (4°C). If your refrigerator is any warmer, bacteria grows and your chicken (as well as everything else) becomes a germ party. Buy a new fridge.
You’ve heard of salmonella? Well, it doesn’t only come from salmons. If that’s news to you, then for the love of all things holy, read on before whacking that week-old KFC in the microwave.
As Vanilla Ice proved, nothing stays fresh forever. But the definition of “fresh” varies from person to person.
If, to you, fresh means “safe to eat,” the answer is 3 to 4 days. However, if you associate freshness with flavor and texture, Day 1 Fridge KFC probably tastes a lot fresher than Day 4 Fridge KFC. Both are safe by FDA standards, though.
If you’re the kind of person that can’t keep to such a tight schedule and needs to plan their reheated KFC and RuPaul nights well in advance, you can freeze that half-full bucket of the Colonel’s wings for a whole 6 months.
You can extend that to 6 months if you order a dozen pots of gravy to freeze them in.
Luckily for you, it’s super easy to tell if eating the chicken in your fridge is a one-way ticket to Diarrhea Town.
Even when sticking to the “1 to 4 days” rule, chicken can sometimes go bad early for a whole bunch of reasons. If your cooked but cold poultry from Friday’s BBQ is showing any of the following signs, it’s best to avoid chowing down on that sandwich you made for Monday’s lunch:
- The “best by” date is past tense. “Best by” dates exist for a reason. If your cooked chicken is past its own, the risk of post-feast food flu is much higher.
- The color changes. If your cooked (or raw) chicken is turning gray/greenish in color, it’s bad. If there’s mold on it, serious bacteria growth has started. It’s time to consider chuckin’ that chicken.
- It smells. Chicken, whether raw or cooked, is notorious for smelling like Michael Moore’s unwashed jockstrap when it’s gone off. It’s an acidic smell, not too dissimilar from ammonia. If you’ve marinated your chicken in sauce or a secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices, however, the smell can be harder to pick up.
- Texture. Chicken should be moist, but it shouldn’t be slimy. This is especially true of cooked chicken. If your refrigerated leftovers have a slimy texture, then it’s gone bad (washing the slime off doesn’t help, either).
We shouldn’t have to say this, but we live in the age of the Tide Pod challenge:
Is stale chicken more dangerous than other food?
Chickens (and eggs, their equally tasty spin-off) are often cited in food poisoning discussions. Salmonella in particular is noted for being a particularly chicken-adjacent bacteria. As such, chicken is considered a high-risk food for food poisoning.
However, that doesn’t mean eating chicken (and other poultry) is a digestion-risk dice-roll where other foods aren’t. The risks of contracting food poisoning from chicken are higher than many other foods (it’s the fourth most common source of foodborne pathogens), but that doesn’t mean we should stop eating it.
Even though chicken is more likely to give you food poisoning than other meats (and much more likely than veg and fruit), that risk is still relatively low if you prepare and store it correctly.
Almost 50 percent of folks in the USA eat chicken more than once per week. If even 1 in 100 of them contracted food poisoning, it would be the equivalent of 1.5 million people. It’d be on the news, let’s put it that way.
So yeah, chicken isn’t as safe as a lot of other foods, but it’s far from unsafe to eat.
Chicken is a high-risk food for bacteria growth. Campylobacter, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens… They all love hiding in chicken so they can f*ck up your week with food poisoning.
Note the word “poisoning.” Normally, diseases like salmonella aren’t fatal, but they’re not never fatal. The fire you’re playing with if you choose to eat risky chicken could burn you more than spending 1 or 2 nights with your head over the toilet bowl.
Again, for the people who somehow still haven’t grasped that week-old nuggets make you poop liquid:
Symptoms of food poisoning
Obviously, sometimes you can accidentally eat bad chicken. As we already pointed out, chicken (as with all foods) sometimes can go bad within the usual “safe to eat” window. We also lied when we said it was super easy to tell when chicken is bad (sorry). It usually is, but not always. Sometimes you don’t find out until you’re throwing it back up.
If you’re feeling any of the below after eating some cooked chicken from the fridge, there’s a high chance you’ve got food poisoning:
- high fever (above 101.5 °F or 38.6 °C)
- bloody stool
How to cook and prep chicken safely
The food poisoning chicken risk doesn’t start in the fridge. If it hasn’t been prepared and cooked right, it can give you gut trouble while it’s still steaming on the plate (or in the megabucket).
How long and at what temperature depends on how much chicken your cooking, and how you’re choosing to cook it. Frying diced chicken is a minutes-long job, but baking a whole bird in an oven is a “start now, eat this evening” deal.
As a rule of thumb, your chicken should be cooked through to the middle, so there’s no pink meat left.
If you prefer numbers to colors, the CDC says that your chicken should be 165 °F (73.9 °C) at the center before serving.
When it comes to prep, there’s still some debate over whether washing raw chicken is good or bad for hygiene. Whether you wash your meat or not, always prep and cook it in a clean environment with clean utensils (cross-contamination is one of the biggest kitchen hygiene risks).
The food poisoning risks with chicken may be high. But they’re worth it, because chicken is f*cking delicious.
While it’s never possible to totally eliminate the risk of food poisoning, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do to keep it pretty low. There’s a reason human beings haven’t gone extinct from chicken-borne diseases. Yeah, it’s easy to contract them, but it’s equally easy to make sure you probably won’t.
- Keep it in an airtight container. Bacteria find air super helpful for multiplying. This also stops chicken juices from leaking and contaminating other foods.
- Make sure your refrigerator isn’t too warm (below 40°F or 4°C, remember).
- Eat it within the 1- to 4-day safety window.
Still unsure about the leftover popcorn chicken that’s been eyeing you from the top shelf of the fridge for the past few days? Here’s a last minute rundown of everything we’ve learned.
Cooked chicken can be kept in the fridge for up to 4 days and still be safe to eat. Raw chicken for half this time. If you want to keep your cooked chicken longer, it can be frozen for 4 to 6 months (depending on whether it’s in sauce).
Food poisoning is no joke, and chicken is a big food poisoning risk food (raw or cooked). If your cooked chicken is a weird color, slimy, smells bad, or has a weird texture, don’t eat it.
It’s also important to prep and cook your chicken thoroughly. Undercooked chicken is a surefire way to give yourself a hella queasy tummy, no matter how well you refrigerate it.
You can store chicken in an airtight and leak-proof container to keep it fresh. This also reduces the risk of cross-contamination by keeping juices away from other food.