You need to take chicken out of the fridge for at least a little while before cooking it, in order to season the meat. But how long can chicken sit out before it starts to go bad? That’s what we’re here to talk about.
How Long Can Chicken Sit Out?
Chicken should never sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour in especially hot weather. This applies whether the chicken is raw or cooked. When stored in the fridge, raw chicken should keep for up to 2 days, while cooked leftovers have a shelf life of 3 to 4 days.
Why It’s Important
All raw meat, including chicken, should be refrigerated as much as possible. That’s because the cool temperatures inhibit bacterial growth.
When chicken is kept at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, the bacteria that cause food poisoning can multiply at a disturbingly rapid pace. Room temperature falls squarely within this range, so it’s best not to leave chicken sitting out for too long.
Storing the meat at temps between 33 and 38 degrees will slow the growth of bacteria, but they won’t stop it completely. The only way to halt bacterial growth is to keep the meat in the freezer, at a temperature below 0 degrees.
How Long Can Chicken Sit Out?
Raw chicken should never sit out for longer than 2 hours. When the weather outside is particularly hot—say, 85 degrees or more—the window shortens to just 1 hour.
The same rules apply when the chicken is cooked. While the high cooking temperatures will eradicate any bacteria that might have been lingering on the surface, spoilage bacteria will begin to spread after 2 hours at room temperature.
It’s important to note that cooking or reheating the meat won’t be enough to guarantee food safety. Once the chicken has been sitting out for longer than 2 hours, you’ll need to discard it, even if it looks and smells fine.
The reasoning behind this is simple. The hazardous bacteria might be destroyed at high temperatures, but they’ll leave behind heat-resistant toxins. That’s one of the reasons why you can’t salvage spoiled meat by cooking it.
Should You Bring Chicken To Room Temperature Before Cooking It?
Though it’s important to keep the chicken out of the “danger zone” as much as possible, we do recommend taking it out of the fridge for 30 minutes or so before putting it on the heat.
Bringing meat to room temperature before cooking will allow it to cook more evenly. In the case of skin-on poultry, it will also promote crispier skin.
You can season the chicken in advance, then put it back in the refrigerator, uncovered, until you’re ready to fire up the grill. This is a particularly good idea with whole chickens or other skin-on cuts, as drier skin will crisp up better.
If you forgot to take the chicken out of the fridge to warm up, don’t worry. You can still achieve good results—the meat might just take a bit longer to reach the optimal temperature and texture.
Can You Eat Fried Chicken at Room Temperature?
Fried chicken is a staple at picnics, but is it safe to keep it at room temperature until you’re ready to eat it? For the reasons we’ve mentioned, it’s not a good idea.
If you want to bring fried chicken along to the beach or on a picnic, keep it in an insulated container that’s been packed with ice. This should keep it sufficiently cool until you’re ready to eat.
Put any leftovers back in the cooler as soon as you can. If the chicken has been sitting out in the sun for longer than 2 hours—or 1 hour on hot days—it’s best to throw it out.
How Long Does Chicken Keep in the Fridge?
Raw chicken doesn’t keep for very long in the fridge, so it’s a good idea to buy it no more than a day before you plan to cook it. As long as you keep it properly refrigerated, it should keep for 1 to 2 days.
If you’d like to marinate or brine the chicken, be sure to plan ahead. You don’t want to leave chicken in a marinade mixture for too long, especially if you’re using acidic ingredients. But if you wait too long to start the process, the meat might spoil.
After the meat is cooked, you’ll have a bit more time before it starts to turn the corner. Cooked chicken should keep in the fridge for up to 4 days.
Wrap any leftovers and put them in the refrigerator as soon as they’ve had a chance to cool completely. Also, force as much air out of the storage containers as you can, in order to help the meat stay fresh longer.
Whether the chicken is raw or cooked, be sure to store it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, toward the back. This helps keep it colder, since warm air enters the fridge every time you open the door. Never store meat products on the door of the refrigerator.
If you aren’t going to be able to cook the chicken within 2 days, or if you don’t have immediate plans to eat the leftovers, freeze the meat instead. That way, you can thaw and enjoy it at your convenience.
How Long Does Chicken Keep in the Freezer?
All meat products should keep indefinitely when stored at a temperature below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. But in practice, they won’t be as good if they’re exposed to the freezing temps for too long.
When meat is frozen, it loses some of its moisture. This is a particular concern with lean meats like chicken breast. If the meat is cooked, it will dry out even faster, as it has already lost moisture due to the cooking process.
Store raw chicken in the freezer for no longer than 3 months for boneless cuts, 6 months for bone-in poultry, and 1 year for whole chickens. Cooked leftovers should be thawed and reheated within 2 to 3 months.
Repeated thawing and refreezing can also result in dry chicken. For this reason, try not to take the meat out of the freezer unless you’ll be able to eat it within a day or two.
Can You Thaw Chicken on the Counter?
Although the chicken might be frozen solid when you take it out of the freezer, the exterior will warm up quickly. The inside, meanwhile, will still be completely frozen.
This means that the meat on the surface will be hanging around in the danger zone for a perilous amount of time while you wait for the rest of it to thaw. As we’ve established, that spells doom for the product.
Instead of thawing chicken on the counter, put it in a container full of cold water. You can also use the sink, assuming that yours is big enough to completely cover the chicken. The meat should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound.
Don’t use warm or hot water to speed the thawing process. The chicken needs to stay at a temperature colder than 39 degrees for the duration of the thaw. Additionally, be sure to keep the meat tightly wrapped.
If you have time, it’s preferable to thaw meat in the refrigerator. Put it on a plate or baking sheet to catch any excess liquid, and store it on the bottom shelf. The refrigerator method takes about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of meat, so a whole chicken should be ready to cook within a day or so.
Even if you opt to take chicken out of the fridge for a while before you cook it, try to limit the warm-up period to 30 minutes. Also, make sure to refrigerate leftovers promptly, and consume or freeze them within a few days.
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!