When chicken smells off, is it still safe to cook it? How do you know when it’s crossed the line? Our ultimate guide will help to ensure that your chicken will taste great when it comes off the grill.
Chicken that smells bad isn’t necessarily spoiled, but there’s a good chance that it isn’t as fresh as you would hope. The bacteria that cause spoilage aren’t the same as the ones that cause food poisoning from undercooked meat. Still, if your chicken smells like sulfur or eggs, you should check it for other signs of deterioration.
Chicken Bad Smell—And Other Warning Signs
The first thing you need to know is that raw chicken shouldn’t smell like much of anything.
When you’ve sniffed enough fresh meat, you might be able to recognize a slight odor. You might even be able to tell the difference between raw steak and raw chicken. But the odors should not be offensive in any way.
If the smell of the chicken causes you to take a step back, then there’s a good chance that it’s turned the corner and needs to be thrown out. But that’s not the only sign you might notice.
Spoiled meat will often have a slimy, sticky, or soggy texture. When it’s fresh, the meat may feel slightly damp to the touch, but it should be firm and slightly springy. Excess sliminess often means that there are numerous bacteria feeding on the surface.
You may also be able to tell whether the chicken is fresh by inspecting the color. If you see any grey or green patches, or if there are spots of white or blue, the meat should be discarded.
There may be red spots on the surface of the raw chicken. These are blood spots, left behind after processing. While these might indicate poor handling of the product, they won’t do any harm.
Chicken Smells Like Sulfur
If you’ve never smelled sulfur before, it has a foul odor resembling that of rotten eggs (see below). Even if it wasn’t indicative of spoilage, you wouldn’t want to eat anything that smelled like this.
As a rule of thumb, the stronger the odor, the less chance there is that the chicken is still fresh. This is one of those times when you’ll want to obey the “when in doubt, throw it out” maxim.
Chicken Smells Like Eggs
What if the chicken smells like eggs, but it isn’t necessarily a bad smell—just a bit off? After all, chickens were once eggs. Doesn’t it stand to reason that they would smell similar to one another?
There are a few reasons why the chicken might smell like eggs when you take it out of the package. First of all, it could mean that there were traces of blood in the wrapping. Blood spoils more quickly than meat, so there’s a chance that the chicken is still okay.
Though we don’t usually advocate rinsing chicken under running water, you can try it in this case. After rinsing the meat, dry it thoroughly, then set it aside for a few minutes before sniffing it again. If it smells fine, then go ahead and cook it as planned.
Vacuum-sealed packaging can also release an eggy smell when you first open it. That’s because the processors remove oxygen and replace it with a preservative gas. This leads to what’s known as a “confinement smell” in the vacuum-packed meat.
Again, when you set the chicken aside for a few minutes, the smell should dissipate. If it doesn’t, then consider the possibility that the meat has indeed spoiled.
That brings us to the final point: Certain bacteria may have caused the chicken to smell off. When chicken is infected with salmonella, it releases a gas that smells vaguely like boiling eggs.
Cooking the meat should destroy the salmonella bacteria. But if the odor is particularly offensive, it’s better to discard the chicken.
Chicken Smells Like Fish
If your chicken smells like fish as soon as you buy it, it could be for one of two reasons.
First of all, it could have come into contact with fish at some point during processing or packing. It’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
The likelier possibility is that the chicken has gone bad, in which case you’ll need to throw it out. You should be able to make the call based on where you bought the chicken, how long it was on the shelf, and whether you trust the source.
Sometimes, you won’t notice the fishy smell until after it’s been in your fridge for a while. In this case, it may have come from other ingredients that were stored nearby. The chicken also could have picked up the scent from the container you used for storage.
You can attempt to cover up the fishy aroma by marinating the chicken in something acidic, such as lemon juice or vinegar. If it doesn’t go away, it’s time to discard the chicken.
Chicken Smells Like Vinegar
This might seem odd, but if you’ve ever encountered this phenomenon, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. If chicken has a sour smell similar to vinegar, it’s likely been contaminated with salmonella, to the point that it’s no longer safe to eat.
One of the telltale signs of spoiled chicken is a sour or overly sweet odor. Although salmonella bacteria can be killed off at high temperatures (see below), if it’s multiplied to the point where the chicken smells like vinegar, then the meat is no good.
Of course, if you’ve used vinegar in your marinade, or to rinse the chicken in order to mask a fishy taste, of course it will smell like vinegar. We’re talking about chicken that has a vinegary odor even when it hasn’t come into contact with other ingredients.
Why Does Chicken Go Bad?
We’ve touched on the answer to this already: chicken goes bad because it’s been contaminated with bacteria.
Bacteria are tiny single-celled organisms that take up residence on the surface of the food we eat. While there, they often reproduce, sometimes at a great rate. This incurs changes in the food that causes it to spoil.
When we say that chicken is “bad,” we mean it in one of two ways. We might say that the meat has spoiled because it smells bad, which is reason enough. Or it could be contaminated with the type of bacteria that causes illness, which can be far more dire.
The bacteria that gives chicken a bad smell is different from the type that causes food poisoning. The latter type attacks the cells in the digestive tract, causing nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Salmonella, as we mentioned before, is one such type of bacteria. It’s perhaps the most well-known cause of food poisoning, especially when it comes to undercooked poultry. But E. coli and campylobacter are two others to watch out for.
Of course, we mean “watch out” in a figurative sense. There’s often no way to tell whether chicken has been contaminated with hazardous bacteria, which is why it’s critical to follow the proper guidelines for storage and handling.
What’s the Safe Internal Temperature for Chicken?
Chicken is a poultry product, meaning it needs to cook to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to be safe to consume. The flesh isn’t as dense as that of beef or pork, so the bacteria can penetrate more deeply, requiring thorough heating in order to destroy them.
Cook chicken breast to 160 degrees before taking it off the heat. Then let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes at minimum. During this time, the temperature will rise enough to render the meat safe for consumption.
What about dark meat? In the case of the thighs and drumsticks, the meat is technically safe at 165 degrees, but it might be too chewy or stringy. We prefer to cook these cuts to 180 degrees, then let them come up to 185 degrees or so while they rest.
Although you can overcook dark meat without ill effect—at least up to a certain point—chicken breast turns chalky and dry when it climbs past 165 degrees. Use an instant-read thermometer to ensure that the meat comes to the optimum temperature without overcooking.
About Spoilage Bacteria
Although salmonella and E. coli are killed off at high temperatures, spoilage bacteria is something else. You can’t salvage meat that’s already gone bad by cooking it to a safe temperature.
While the bacteria feed on the surface of the meat, they’re also excreting waste. This cycle creates the changes that are universally recognized as spoilage. In addition, the bacteria themselves don’t live very long, and they remain on the meat as they die off.
As we pointed out, the spoilage bacteria that cause chicken to smell bad won’t necessarily make you sick. In fact, one of the reasons why sauces and other condiments were invented was to hide the taste and smell of meat that had started to turn.
But it’s unpleasant to eat chicken that has a nasty odor, which is why it’s better to throw it out before taking the trouble to cook it.
What Does Cooked Chicken Smell Like?
While raw chicken doesn’t have much of an scent, the meat should smell pleasant as it cooks. Part of the aroma will come from the seasonings, but the poultry itself has a rich, slightly fatty essence that will have your mouth watering.
Even once the chicken cools, it will retain a faint odor. However, any strong scents should be regarded as red flags. If the cooked meat starts to smell sweet or sour, then it’s been in the fridge too long.
How Can You Keep Chicken From Going Bad?
First of all, you should start with a reliable product. If you aren’t able to procure your meat from a local farm, strike up cordial relationships with the butchers at your neighborhood grocery store. They should be able to tell you how fresh the chicken is when you buy it.
When that’s not an option either, check the sell-by dates on the packages. These don’t necessarily indicate whether the meat is fresh—they’re in place to let the retailers know how long the package has been on the shelf. Still, the further away the date is, the fresher the meat will be.
It’s preferable to cook and enjoy chicken on the same day you buy it. You can season the meat and let it dry uncovered in the fridge overnight, or add it to a brine or marinade if you’d like. But try to cook it no later than the next day.
After 2 days in the fridge, the chicken will start to deteriorate in terms of quality. At this point, if you aren’t going to be able to cook it that day, it would be better to freeze it.
Keep the meat refrigerated as much as possible until you’re ready to cook. You can bring the chicken up to room temperature for about 30 minutes before cooking it, but never leave it out for longer than 2 hours.
The fridge should be set to a temp between 33 and 38 degrees. Check yours to be sure it hasn’t climbed too high or dipped too low.
When freezing chicken, force as much air as you can out of the package. The more air there is inside, the greater the risk of freezer burn. Also, label the packages with the date, as well as the contents, so you’ll know when to thaw them.
Whole chickens can keep in the freezer for 6 months to a year. Bone-in cuts might be able to take 6 months in the freezer, but it’s better to thaw them within 3 to 4 months. Lean boneless cuts like breast and tenderloin shouldn’t be frozen for longer than 3 months.
When chicken smells like sulfur, vinegar, eggs, or anything that isn’t plain raw meat, you should sit up and take notice. The smells might not indicate spoilage, but they’re bound to make your dining experience less pleasant if you don’t address them.