How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out Before It Goes Bad?

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Grilled chicken breast cut into strips

It can be difficult to keep track of time when you’re hosting a barbecue, especially once the food is served. At that point, you might think your work is done. But it’s important to know how long the food has been on the serving table, too. How long can cooked chicken sit out without going bad? Let’s take a closer look.

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out?

Cooked chicken can remain at room temperature for 2 hours, or 1 hour if the ambient temperature is higher than 90 degrees. If it’s left out any longer than that, it should be discarded. Consuming cooked chicken that’s been sitting out for too long can lead to food poisoning.

Grilled chicken wings

Understanding the Danger Zone

Even novice chefs know that you should keep raw and cooked meats refrigerated whenever possible. The reasoning behind this is simple: At certain temperatures, the meat is more likely to harbor harmful bacteria.

You should always store meat at temps either below 40 or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The range between 40 and 140 is called “the danger zone” because at these temperatures, bacteria can multiply quickly. In fact, bacteria have been known to double in as little as 20 minutes within this window.

In short, leaving the meat in the danger zone for too long could lead to food poisoning. While the symptoms aren’t necessarily fatal, it’s no fun to get sick from eating spoiled meat. That’s why you need to know just how long cooked meat can sit out before it starts to turn.

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out and Still Be Considered Safe?

As a general rule, you should never consume chicken that’s been left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. If the weather is warm—as in, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit—refrigerate any leftovers after 1 hour.

What if you forget and leave the chicken out longer than that? Unfortunately, in this case, you’ll need to discard the leftovers. Even if you reheat the chicken afterward, dangerous bacteria could still be clinging to the meat. Since there’s no way to tell just by looking, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Leftovers of chicken wings

What if The Cooked Chicken is in a Sealed Container?

Unless the sealed container was placed in the refrigerator within the 2-hour window, it’s still not safe to eat it. Although covering the meat may protect it from airborne contaminants, no seal can keep bacteria from multiplying if the meat remains in the danger zone for too long.

That said, keeping the leftovers sealed tightly in the fridge can help to preserve the quality of the meat. See below for more tips on how to properly store cooked chicken.

How Long Will Cooked Chicken Stay Good in the Fridge?

Try to consume any leftovers within 3 to 4 days. Past this point, the meat will begin to show signs of spoilage. If the chicken has a sticky or slimy texture, or if it gives off an unpleasant odor, don’t eat it. You should also check to make sure your refrigerator is set to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, just in case.

For best results, keep cooked chicken in the coldest part of the fridge. Since the refrigerator temperature rises a bit every time you open the door, it’s a good idea to store leftovers in the rear, on a lower shelf. Wrap the leftovers as tightly as possible, using either sealed airtight containers or heavy-duty plastic wrap.

Remember: You can always freeze leftovers if you don’t think you’ll have time to eat them within 4 days. Don’t wait any longer than that to freeze them, or it might be too late.

Does Barbecue Sauce Help To Preserve Chicken?

This is another food-safety myth. Sugar-based sauces may keep for a long time with the proper storage, but they won’t help to preserve cooked chicken. You’ll need to refrigerate the meat within the prescribed time frame no matter what kind of sauce it has on it.

What If The Chicken Still Looks and Smells Fine?

Chicken that’s been left out on the counter for a few hours won’t show any obvious signs of spoilage. Even if you left it on the counter overnight, it may still look and smell appetizing. That doesn’t mean it’s safe to consume. Any meat product that spends more than 2 hours at room temperature should be discarded.

On a related note, don’t attempt to taste it first. Again, the food might not taste bad, but it could still cause food poisoning, even if you only took a small bite.

Can You Eat Fried Chicken at Room Temperature?

Fried chicken is a picnic staple, so it’s natural to wonder whether this delicacy is an exception to the 2-hour rule. However, you should follow the same rules for fried chicken as you would for any other type of cooked poultry.

Although it’s technically safe to eat fried chicken at room temperature, it shouldn’t be left out for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour in hot weather). It’s safer to eat it cold than to wait until it approaches the danger zone. Should you decide to pack leftover chicken for a picnic, keep the meat in a cooler until you’re ready to serve it.

How Long Can You Freeze Cooked Chicken?

In theory, frozen meats will keep indefinitely as long as the freezer temperature holds steady at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In practice, though, we recommend thawing and consuming any leftover cooked meats within 4 months. If you wait too long, the chicken might lose its appealing texture.

When storing meat for the freezer, use airtight containers or zip-top bags. Don’t allow any excess air to remain in the bag, or the leftover meat will be prone to freezer burn. Label the containers with the date and the contents, making sure to note which seasonings or sauces you used, if any.

The Bottom Line

No matter what kind of meat you’re cooking, take care to refrigerate any leftovers within 2 hours. Depending on your planning and the quality of your barbecue, you might not have any, but that’s not a situation in which we like to find ourselves. Take good care of your leftover chicken, and you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for a few more days.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


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