How can you tell if frozen chicken has gone bad?

Frozen chicken can last in the freezer for up to 12 months if stored properly at a temperature of 0°F or below. However, even when stored under ideal conditions, frozen chicken can still go bad over time. There are a few ways you can check your frozen chicken to see if it’s still safe to eat or if it’s time to throw it out.

Check the expiration date

The first thing to look for when trying to determine if frozen chicken is still good is the expiration date printed on the packaging. This date indicates how long the manufacturer guarantees the quality of the frozen chicken. The expiration date will usually read something like “Best if used by” followed by a date.

As a general rule, frozen chicken should be safe to eat if used by the date printed on the package. However, it’s important to note that the expiration date is not always an exact indicator of whether chicken is still good or not. Freezer storage time, temperature fluctuations, and other variables can affect the shelf life.

Look for signs of freezer burn

Freezer burn is one of the most obvious signs that frozen chicken has been stored for too long. It occurs when air reaches the surface of the chicken and dries it out. Areas affected by freezer burn will appear grayish-brown and dry or leathery.

Heavily freezer burned chicken may also have dry spots or ice crystals on it. The affected parts will taste dry and unpleasant, even if you cook the chicken thoroughly. Any chicken that shows extensive signs of freezer burn should be discarded.

Check for ice crystals

Another sign your frozen chicken may be past its prime is the presence of large ice crystals. Some ice crystals are normal on frozen foods, but over time larger, coarser crystals can start to form. Large crystals are an indication that the chicken has been stored for too long and the moisture is starting to separate.

If you notice extensive ice crystal formation when examining your frozen chicken, it’s best not to take any chances and throw it away. At the very least, cook it thoroughly to 165°F internal temperature if you do choose to eat it.

Smell for off odors

Your nose can often detect spoilage that your eyes might miss. Give your frozen chicken a good sniff when you take it out of the freezer. Freshly frozen chicken has little odor. Rancid chicken gives off a clearly unpleasant scent.

Some of the common off odors to watch for include:

  • Rotten egg smell – This indicates spoilage bacteria are present
  • Fishy or ammonia-like smell – The chicken has started to decompose
  • Slimy texture – Bacterial slime formation

If you notice any of these red flags when you smell your frozen chicken, you should not risk eating it. The unpleasant odors mean it has very likely gone bad.

Look for discoloration

When frozen chicken starts to spoil, you may notice some physical changes in addition to off odors. As the chicken decays, its color and texture deteriorates.

Look for these signs of spoilage on your frozen chicken:

  • Unusual grayish or greenish tint to the meat
  • Slimy or sticky texture
  • Dark or dull-looking skin

Wholesome frozen chicken will be bright white or yellow with skin that’s glossy and not sticky. Discoloration, sliminess, or dullness are signs bacteria growth has caused deterioration.

Check the temperature

To stay fresh and avoid freezer burn, frozen chicken needs to be maintained at a steady temperature of 0°F or below. If your freezer cannot consistently hold this temperature, your frozen chicken could start to go bad prematurely.

Check the temperature of your freezer occasionally with an appliance thermometer. If it frequently rises above 0°F for extended periods, your chicken could spoil faster than the expiration date indicates.

Power outages, frequent opening of the freezer door, overloading the freezer, or a malfunctioning thermostat can all cause temperature fluctuations that will shorten the shelf life of frozen chicken.

Consider the age of the chicken

How long has the chicken been in your freezer? Frozen chicken that has been stored continuously at 0°F for not more than 12 months should still be safe to eat.

However, the qualitative changes that come with age, like texture deterioration and freezer burn, will make older chicken less palatable. Most sources recommend using frozen chicken within 9 months for best flavor and quality.

If you can’t remember when you initially froze the chicken, the general rule is “first in, first out.” Use up older packages of frozen chicken first before eating newer ones.

Can you refreeze thawed chicken?

Sometimes chicken can start to thaw unexpectedly if there is a temperature issue with your freezer. If you catch it quickly, you may be able to safely refreeze the chicken.

According to USDA guidelines, you can refreeze raw chicken if it still contains ice crystals and was thawed in the refrigerator within the last 1-2 days. But if the chicken has been at room temperature for 2 or more hours, it is not safe to refreeze.

Refrozen chicken may suffer further quality loss, so it’s best to cook and eat it soon after refreezing. Do not attempt to refreeze cooked chicken that has thawed.

How to store frozen chicken properly

Storing your frozen chicken properly will help extend its freezer life and reduce the chances of it going bad prematurely. Here are some frozen chicken storage tips to keep it fresh longer:

  • Wrap chicken tightly in plastic, foil, or freezer bags to prevent freezer burn.
  • Store chicken towards the back of the freezer where temperature stays most constant.
  • Don’t overfill your freezer, which can hinder cold air circulation.
  • Use chicken within 2-3 months for best quality. Freeze uncooked chicken for up to 12 months.
  • Monitor freezer temperature with a thermometer and maintain 0°F or below.
  • Avoid opening the freezer frequently to limit temperature fluctuations.

What to do with frozen chicken that smells bad

When in doubt, throw it out. If your frozen chicken has an off odor, slime formation, or visible signs of spoilage, it is not worth the risk to cook or eat it. Food safety experts advise discarding bad smelling frozen chicken.

Do not taste the chicken to try to determine if it is OK or not. Any chicken giving off a rancid, rotten, or unpleasant smell should be immediately discarded in the trash.

Wash hands, utensils, surfaces, and anything else that may have touched the spoiled chicken to prevent bacteria spread.

Can you cook and eat spoiled frozen chicken?

It is risky and not recommended to eat chicken that smells rotten or shows signs of spoilage. Poultry in particular can contain dangerous bacteria like salmonella and campylobacter.

While cooking spoiled chicken thoroughly may kill bacteria, toxins produced by the bacteria can still make you sick. Additionally, the quality and texture of the meat will be undesirable.

No matter how well you cook it, spoiled frozen chicken that looks or smells bad is unlikely to be palatable and the smarter choice is just to discard it entirely.

How to tell if cooked frozen chicken is bad

The shelf life of frozen cooked chicken depends on how it is stored. Properly stored in the freezer, cooked frozen chicken will last for 3-6 months before becoming questionably safe to eat.

Here are some signs that cooked frozen chicken has gone bad:

  • Ice crystals or dry spots on the surface
  • Noticeable freezer burn
  • Strange color changes or graying of the meat
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Unpleasant “off” odors

Cooked chicken that has been continuously defrosted in the fridge for over 3-4 days should also be discarded. The same goes for thawed cooked chicken left at room temperature for more than 2 hours.

When reheating cooked frozen chicken, it should reach 165°F as measured by a food thermometer. If it smells bad or seems undercooked at this safe temperature, do not eat the chicken.

Can you get food poisoning from spoiled frozen chicken?

Yes, you can absolutely get sick from eating chicken that has spoiled in the freezer. Foodborne pathogens like salmonella survive freezing and develop rapidly when frozen chicken starts going bad.

Symptoms of food poisoning from spoiled frozen chicken can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Headache

The symptoms may start anywhere from a few hours to a few days after eating the contaminated chicken. In severe cases, food poisoning from spoiled chicken can even lead to hospitalization.

To avoid getting sick, do not take risks eating frozen chicken with an off smell or other signs of spoilage. When in doubt, throw it out.


Keeping frozen chicken at a steady 0°F temperature and not exceeding recommended storage times of 9-12 months is the best way to prevent spoilage. Check for signs of freezer burn, ice crystals, odor, color, and sliminess to identify if your frozen chicken has gone bad.

Cook frozen chicken thoroughly to 165°F internal temperature, but be aware that cooking does not necessarily make spoiled chicken safe to eat. Your safest option is just to discard any frozen chicken with noticeable signs of spoilage.

Properly handling and promptly freezing fresh chicken, avoiding temperature fluctuations, and monitoring freezer storage time will keep your chicken safe, tasty, and prevent the need to toss spoiled food.

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