When you’re grilling a lot of chicken, you can expect to have some left over. In fact, I usually plan for it. There are as many uses for leftover chicken as there are days in the week—but will the meat last that long?
How Long Does Cooked Chicken Last In The Fridge?
Cooked chicken will last for up to 4 days when stored in the refrigerator. To help it maintain its flavor and texture, keep it on a lower shelf, well away from the door. Freeze any leftovers that you don’t intend to eat right away, and try to defrost and enjoy them within 4 months.
Tips On Storing Leftovers
Once the chicken is finished cooking, it can sit out at room temperature for up to 2 hours. After that, you’ll need to put it in the refrigerator. If the ambient temperature is 90 degrees or higher, you have just 1 hour before you need to pop that meat in the fridge. In fact, this is true of raw chicken as well.
Why is that? Because if the meat is held at temps between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for any longer, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. The window between 40 and 140 degrees is called the danger zone for this reason.
When you’re ready to store the chicken, put it in sealed containers or zip-top plastic bags. Try to force as much air as possible out of the containers. Set the leftovers on a lower shelf in the rear of the fridge. The key is to keep the meat cold. If it’s stored too close to the door, you run the risk of warming it up every time you open the fridge.
How Long Can Cooked Chicken Stay in the Fridge?
According to the USDA, cooked chicken should last for 3 to 4 days when it’s properly refrigerated. That means keeping it at temps under 40 degrees for the entire storage period.
Although refrigeration helps to slow bacterial growth, it can’t stop it entirely. Even when the chicken is refrigerated, it will begin to spoil at around the 5-day marker.
When it comes to cooked meats, there are two different types of bacteria to watch out for. Pathogenic bacteria are the ones that cause food-borne illnesses, and the reason why it’s important to keep meat out of the “danger zone.” These bacteria usually don’t have any effect on the appearance, smell, or taste of the food itself.
Spoilage bacteria, on the other hand, will eventually have a negative effect on the flavor and texture of the meat. Unlike most pathogenic bacteria, they can multiply at cold temperatures. These don’t necessarily cause illness, but because they make the meat taste and smell bad, they’re not pleasant to consume, either.
For information on how to detect spoilage, see How To Tell When Cooked Chicken Has Gone Bad, below.
Cooked Chicken in Fridge For 7 Days
Can you keep cooked chicken in the fridge for 7 days? In theory, you could, but we wouldn’t recommend eating it at that point. After 4 days, the chicken could be harboring spoilage bacteria, even if there are no visible signs of it yet.
If you plan to eat the leftover chicken a week from now, you should freeze it instead. This might seem like a waste of time when the window is such a short one. Still, it’s better than allowing the chicken to go bad, which will waste even more time—not to mention the chicken.
Cooked Chicken in the Fridge For 5 Days
What if you miss the 4-day threshold and still have some cooked chicken in the fridge 5 days later? Does that one day really make that much of a difference?
It might, which is why we suggest freezing leftovers if you’re not going to eat them in 3 to 4 days. Still, at 5 days, it’s a judgement call.
Although there could be some spoilage bacteria present at this point, they may not have affected the taste or texture of the chicken. As we mentioned, these bacteria won’t necessarily make you sick, so it’s up to you whether or not to take the risk. Obviously, if the meat smells or looks bad, don’t eat it.
Cooked Chicken in the Fridge For 4 Days
It’s fine to keep cooked chicken in the fridge for 4 days. The meat should have retained most of its flavor and texture at this point, and it’s considered safe to eat 4-day old leftovers.
If you think you might have to freeze the leftovers, try not to wait until 4 days have passed before you do it. In this case, you’ll have to consume the meat shortly after it’s defrosted.
How To Tell When Cooked Chicken Has Gone Bad
Although cooked chicken might not show any visible signs of spoilage once it’s crossed that threshold, there are a few red flags you can watch out for.
Fresh cooked chicken will be white or brown, depending on what part of the bird it’s from. If there’s a grayish or greenish tinge to the meat, it’s time to throw it out. You might also notice white spots or mold, depending on how long the meat was in the fridge.
You can also give the meat a good sniff. If it’s bad, it might smell sour, or have a sulfur-like scent reminiscent of rotten eggs. Remember that if you’ve used a sauce or marinade on the chicken, those ingredients might mask any unpleasant smells, so don’t rely on this test alone.
Touch the meat with your bare fingers to test the texture. Chicken that’s gone bad will usually feel sticky or slimy.
If you notice any of these signs, discard the chicken at once. Don’t attempt to taste it “just to make sure.” When it comes to spoiled meat, one bite is as bad as a dozen.
Tips on Freezing Cooked Chicken
To prepare cooked chicken for the freezer, place it in airtight containers or zip-top freezer bags. Pack the containers well to keep any excess air from getting in. When frozen foods are exposed to too much oxygen, they’re more prone to freezer burn.
Label the containers so that you’ll remember what’s inside when it comes time to defrost them. It’s also helpful to include the date, since you should thaw and reheat leftovers within 3 to 4 months. The frozen chicken will keep indefinitely as long as the freezer temp is set below 0 degrees, but longer storage periods could affect the texture.
You can defrost cooked chicken in the refrigerator for 24 hours per 5 pounds of meat, or in a bowl of cold water for about 30 minutes per pound. If you choose the cold water method, change the water every 30 minutes. You can also use the defrost setting on the microwave, but be sure to check the meat often for hot spots.
It’s permissible to repurpose defrosted cooked chicken into another dish—such as a stew, chili, or pot pie—and then refreeze that dish for another time. For more tips on reusing cooked chicken, see Ideas For Leftovers, below.
Can You Destroy Bacteria By Reheating Chicken in the Microwave?
Many people wonder if they can salvage chicken that’s gone downhill by zapping it in the microwave. It would be nice if that were the case, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
Microwave technology works by reheating food from the outside in. That means that it can destroy bacteria that are living on the surface. However, it won’t penetrate deeply enough to kill off any toxins that were created by bacteria beyond that outer layer. Reheating 7-day-old chicken in the microwave won’t make it safe to eat, only warmer.
Ideas For Leftovers
Are you wondering what you can do with all that leftover chicken? Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling.
Use it as a salad topping
You can keep it simple with romaine lettuce, croutons, Asiago cheese, and Caesar dressing. Try tossing the cooked chicken pieces in buffalo wing sauce before adding them to the salad for a flavor kick.
Make chicken salad
A handful of diced celery, some mayonnaise, salt, and pepper are all you need, but you can also get creative by adding minced herbs and a bit of Dijon mustard. If you really want to make the dish special, make your own mayonnaise or aioli from scratch. As a bonus, chicken salad can keep for up to 5 days when properly stored.
Create a soup
For chicken noodle soup, saute 1/4 cup each diced carrots and onions in 2 tablespoons of butter until soft, then add diced cooked chicken and about 4 cups of stock or broth. Bring to a boil, stir in 1/2 cup of medium egg noodles, and simmer until the noodles are tender. Season with salt, pepper, and freshly minced parsley.
Make a chili
Follow your favorite recipe for chili con carne, substituting shredded cooked chicken for the ground chuck or stew beef. Remember that the meat is already cooked, so you can skip the browning step. This is a particularly good way to use up leg and thigh meat.
Enjoy new sandwich combinations
Chicken is an excellent template for all sorts of flavors. You can tuck the cooked meat into a BLT, use it as the base for a creative grilled cheese, or make a chicken panini with arugula, roasted tomatoes, and onion jam.
The Bottom Line
Can you keep cooked chicken in the fridge for 5 days or more? It’s better if you use it up before then, which is why we’ve provided a list of possible menu options. If there are too many leftovers for you to handle within 4 days, we would suggest freezing them instead.