It’s happened to the best of us. We throw a great barbecue, everyone eats their fill and goes home happy, and we go to bed exhilarated but exhausted. Then we wake up to find that we left a bunch of grilled chicken on the table overnight. Can we still save it?
Chicken Left Out Overnight
You should never consume chicken that’s been left out overnight. If cooked meat is left at room temperature for more than 2 hours, it’s no longer safe to eat. To avoid disappointment, remember to refrigerate all leftovers within 2 hours, or 1 hour if the temperature outside exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Why Chicken Needs Refrigeration
Why do we store chicken in the refrigerator in the first place? It’s because the flesh harbors bacteria that can cause serious illness if it’s consumed. Storing the meat at temperatures below 40 degrees helps prevent that bacteria from multiplying.
Cooking the meat past 140 degrees has the same effect, but the bacteria can start to build up again once the chicken cools down. That’s why you need to refrigerate leftover cooked chicken as well as the raw product.
We should also mention that while 40 to 140 degrees is considered the “danger zone” where bacteria are most likely to breed, you should cook chicken past 140 before consuming it. 165 degrees is the recommended temp for breasts, and 180 is preferable when cooking chicken thighs.
Can You Eat Chicken Left Out Overnight?
Although it can be tempting to ignore the fact that the chicken sat out all night, you shouldn’t eat it. Even if the meat still smells and looks fine, eating it could lead to food poisoning. It’s better to err on the safe side, no matter how disappointing it is.
Some people believe that heating the chicken up again will kill off any hazardous bacteria. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Some bacteria are capable of producing heat-resistant toxins. Since there’s no way to tell with the naked eye whether these bacteria are present, you should discard the meat just to be sure.
How Long Can You Leave Chicken Sitting Out?
2 hours is the maximum amount of time that chicken can be left out before it needs to be either refrigerated or thrown away. If the temperature in the room is any warmer than 90 degrees, the window shortens to 1 hour.
What If The Chicken Was Covered Up All Night?
Wrapping meat can save it from any airborne germs or projectiles. If the chicken stayed covered for the entire night, it’s safe to assume that no dust or pet hair landed on its surface.
However, covering the meat can’t keep the bacteria from multiplying at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. Unless you can be confident that the room was either colder or warmer than that—which is unlikely—the chicken isn’t safe to eat.
Can You Leave Raw Chicken Out Overnight?
If possible, this is an even worse idea than leaving cooked chicken out overnight. Just like cooked meat, raw chicken needs to be kept refrigerated as much as possible. You can leave chicken at room temperature for up to 2 hours while you’re seasoning or marinating it, but it needs to be discarded if it sits out any longer.
Can You Thaw Chicken By Leaving It Out Overnight?
For best results, you should always thaw chicken in the refrigerator. This will ensure that it remains in the safe zone as far as the temperature is concerned. The process usually takes about 24 hours, perhaps a bit longer if you’re thawing a whole chicken.
Another way to thaw chicken is to put it in a cold water bath. Make sure the package is sealed tightly, and change out the water every 30 minutes. Depending on the size of the cut, the meat should be thawed in 1 to 3 hours. Note that if you thaw chicken using the cold water method, you’ll need to cook it off right away.
Never thaw meat by leaving it on the counter, whether it’s overnight or just for a few hours. The meat won’t stay cold enough to prevent bacteria from growing.
How To Store Leftover Chicken
The best way to deal with leftover chicken is to wrap it up as soon as everyone has finished eating. As we mentioned, this should happen within a 2-hour window, or it will be too late.
Place the leftovers in a zip-top plastic bag or a sealed container. Make sure to squeeze any excess air out of the package, especially if you’re using a bag. Set the container on the lowest shelf of the fridge, as far away from the door as possible. When it’s stored in this manner, leftover chicken can keep for 3 to 4 days.
If you’re approaching the 3-day mark and you don’t think you’ll have a chance to use the chicken for any reason, put the container in the freezer instead. Be sure it’s well sealed, and label it with the date and the contents before freezing. Also, check the freezer temp and adjust it if it’s running any higher than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Defrost and cook these leftovers within 4 to 6 months, if possible. While the meat won’t spoil if you keep it in there longer, the texture will start to deteriorate.
How Can You Tell If The Chicken Has Gone Bad?
As we pointed out, chicken that’s been sitting out any longer than 2 hours needs to be discarded, regardless of whether it shows any warning signs. But cooked meat can go bad when it’s kept for too long, even if you’ve stored it properly. Here’s what you need to watch out for:
- Gray or green patches
- A sour smell
- Slimy or sticky texture
- A fuzzy appearance
If you notice any of these things, throw the chicken out immediately. In warmer weather, consider placing the spoiled meat in a plastic bag, then putting it in the freezer until you’re ready to take out the trash. Just keep it well away from your edible ingredients in the meantime, so you don’t mistake it for something that you can thaw and eat.
Regardless of whether it’s raw or cooked, frozen or fresh, chicken should never be left out at room temperature overnight. Remember to refrigerate any leftovers within 2 hours, so you can safely enjoy them the next day.