Better Safe Than Sorry

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out Before It Goes Bad? Here’s The Deal

Hint: Probably not as long as you think.

Updated: 
Originally Published: 
After cooking a big meal, it's easy to forget to put the food away — leaving you to wonder how long ...
rudisill/E+/Getty Images

It's time to feed the ravenous horde that is your family. What are you making? For many of us, the answer to that question often includes chicken. The kids like it, you like it, and with a million recipes available online, it's an easy meal to whip up — or buy — on a busy weekday. But sometimes, you're so busy that (oops) you inadvertently leave the cooked chicken sitting out on the counter for longer than expected. It happens to the best of us! However, now it's officially dinner time, and you're left asking yourself, How long can cooked chicken sit out before it becomes unsafe to eat? Did you accidentally ruin tonight's dinner, or is it salvageable?

That potential conundrum aside, chicken still makes a great go-to meal, whether you cook it yourself or buy a ready-to-eat roasted chicken from the market. Many moms like to pre-cook our chicken dinner on meal-prep Sundays or at least get a head start in the afternoon before little hands and hungry mouths come crashing into the kitchen, interrupting your Jennifer "Amateur Cook" Garner-like flow. But no matter what way you purchase or prepare your chicken, it's vital to understand some precautionary basics. And while the average eater knows you have to cook animal proteins thoroughly before consumption, it’s common for a person to be unfamiliar with the specifics of food safety.

With that in mind, here's how to tell if you've left your cooked chicken dinner sitting out too long and need to call a last-minute pizza delivery instead.

Is it safe to eat?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, you can safely leave cooked chicken out at room temperature for two hours — any longer, and you should toss it.

You also want to consider other factors in the kitchen or dining room where the chicken has been left out, like the room's humidity. If the cooked chicken has been sitting out for one hour above 90° F, you should discard it. The same should be considered if you've brought cooked chicken with you at a picnic or packed it as a school lunch. It's better to be safer than sorry since bacteria proliferate when cooked chicken is kept at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F.

Additionally, cooked chicken that sits out can cause food poisoning, including E. coli and salmonella, which can cause stomach pain or much worse. Don't panic spiral yet — you're far more likely to have mild to moderate side effects. Still, knowing how severe the danger can be is crucial... especially when you consider that contaminated cooked chicken will look and smell like uncontaminated cooked chicken.

The bottom line? It's essential to refrigerate cooked chicken as soon as possible to prevent food-borne illness.

How long can you store cooked chicken?

There's a common misconception that storing cooked chicken in a covered container will prevent air-borne illnesses. This is false since the concern is the meat itself, where the bacteria grows.

The other popular myth is that a cooked chicken covered in barbecue sauce — or any sauce — prevents it from going bad. Sorry, aspiring pitmasters! No matter how delicious your sauce is, it doesn't protect your cooked chicken from spoiling.

The safest place for your cooked chicken is in the fridge or freezer. If you've meal-prepped your chicken dinner for the week or have a bunch of leftovers, you can safely keep cooked chicken in the refrigerator for three to four days. It will also keep well in the freezer for at least four months.

Does reheating chicken that has been left out help?

You’ve probably heard somewhere along the way in life that reheating food will zap any and all potential pathogens. Unfortunately, though, heat does not get rid of pathogens that multiply at room temp.

How long should you cook chicken?

Just so we cover all smart and healthy cooked chicken bases, here's a note about cooking whole chicken: The US Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends cooking it until it reaches the safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer. When checking the internal temperature of a chicken, you want to check the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

Things happen in the kitchen, especially as a busy mom! Just try to remember to always refrigerate your cooked chicken dinner ASAP. When you're ready to eat, a simple reheating in the microwave or oven will not affect the taste, and you will know it is safe. But when in doubt, throw it out.

How do you know if cooked chicken has gone bad?

Unfortunately, contaminated chicken can sometimes look a lot like uncontaminated chicken. So sticking to the two-hour rule is a good practice. Other differences you should know when it comes to spoiled chicken that's gone lousy include texture changes. If the chicken has become very soft, feels, and looks slime-like, it is best to toss it. Stickiness and a weird film is also key sign.

This article was originally published on