How fast does chicken go bad sitting out?

Chicken is one of the most popular meats, but it’s also one of the most perishable. How long chicken lasts outside the fridge depends on a variety of factors, but it’s never longer than 4 hours. Under the wrong conditions, chicken can even start to go bad well before the 4 hour mark. Knowing how long chicken lasts at room temperature can help you avoid foodborne illness and use chicken safely.

How Long Can Raw Chicken Sit Out at Room Temperature?

According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, raw chicken should not be left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. After sitting out for more than 2 hours at temperatures above 40°F, bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli can multiply quickly and contaminate the chicken. These bacteria cannot be killed by cooking the chicken thoroughly, and they can cause food poisoning if ingested.

Here are some general guidelines for how long raw chicken can be left out before spoiling:

  • 0-2 hours: Safe to cook and eat
  • 2-4 hours: Bacteria may start multiplying, increasing risk of foodborne illness
  • 4+ hours: Do not eat – bacteria counts likely dangerous

As you can see, 2 hours is the maximum recommended time frame for leaving raw chicken out at room temperature. Some experts even recommend just 1 hour as the cutoff. When in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Last at Room Temperature?

Cooked chicken has a slightly longer shelf life than raw chicken when left out at room temperature. But similar safety concerns apply. Cooked chicken should not be left out for longer than 4 hours – and should be discarded if left out more than 2 hours at temperatures above 90°F.

Here are the time limits for cooked chicken left out:

  • 0-2 hours: Safe to eat
  • 2-4 hours: Increased risk of foodborne illness
  • 4+ hours: Potentially dangerous – discard

As these guidelines show, cooked chicken shouldn’t be left out for very long either. The reason is that dangerous bacteria can multiply in cooked chicken just as they can in raw chicken. So leftovers should always be refrigerated promptly.

What Factors Affect How Quickly Chicken Goes Bad?

Several different factors impact how quickly raw or cooked chicken will spoil when left out at room temperature:

1. Temperature

Temperature is one of the most important factors. At temperatures above 40°F, bacteria on chicken can double in number every 20 minutes. So at higher room temperatures, chicken spoils faster.

At 90°F and above, chicken should not be left out for more than 1 hour before spoiling becomes unsafe. At lower temperatures, the 2-4 hour time window applies.

2. Type of Chicken

Different types of chicken also have different shelf lives:

  • Whole chickens: 1-2 days in fridge, 4 hours at room temperature
  • Chicken pieces: 1-2 days in fridge, 4 hours at room temperature
  • Ground chicken: 1-2 days in fridge, 2 hours at room temperature
  • Chicken deli meat: 3-5 days in fridge, 2 hours at room temperature

As you can see, ground chicken has the shortest shelf life and spoils most quickly at room temperature. That’s because grinding chicken exposes more surface area to air and potential bacteria growth.

3. Preparation Method

Raw chicken lasts slightly longer than cooked chicken in the fridge. But at room temperature, cooked chicken can actually last longer before spoiling:

  • Raw chicken: 1-2 days in fridge, 2 hours at room temperature
  • Cooked chicken: 3-4 days in fridge, 2-4 hours at room temperature

This is because cooking chicken to the proper internal temperature kills bacteria on the meat initially. However, it’s still important not to leave cooked chicken out for longer than 4 hours.

How to Tell If Chicken Has Gone Bad

Being able to identify spoiled chicken can prevent foodborne illness. Here are the most common signs that chicken has gone bad:

  • Slimy texture or sticky surface
  • Noticeable change in color, such as graying skin
  • Smells bad, giving off foul, rancid odors
  • Change in consistency – slimy flesh
  • Mold growth

Chicken that displays any of these signs should be discarded right away. Eating bad chicken can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

Safety Tips to Avoid Spoiled Chicken

To keep chicken fresh and avoid potential food poisoning, follow these safe handling and storage tips:

  • Store chicken on the bottom shelf of the fridge, so juices don’t drip onto other food
  • Never leave raw or cooked chicken out for more than 2 hours (1 hour if above 90°F)
  • Marinate chicken in the fridge, not on the counter
  • Cook or freeze chicken within 1-2 days of purchasing
  • Use chicken within 3-4 days if refrigerating after cooking
  • Divide leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in fridge
  • Discard chicken if it has an off smell, color or texture

Following the cold chain is also critical. The cold chain refers to constant refrigeration from store to home fridge or freezer. Any interruptions in cooling during transport increase the chances of bacterial growth on chicken.

Can You Salvage Chicken That Has Been Left Out?

What should you do if you accidentally leave raw or cooked chicken out too long past the safe 2-4 hour time limits? Is it still safe to cook and eat the chicken?

Unfortunately, there is no way to safely salvage or “undo” chicken that may have already started spoiling at room temperature. After sitting out too long, bacterial contamination on chicken can reach unsafe levels even though you can’t see or smell indications of spoilage.

So the USDA recommends discarding any raw or cooked chicken left out more than 2 hours at room temperature (1 hour above 90°F). Cooking spoiled chicken does not make it safe for eating. The bacteria responsible for foodborne illness can survive high cooking temperatures.

When in doubt about chicken that has possibly been left out too long, you’re better off throwing it out. Don’t risk getting sick from chicken that has been sitting in the danger zone.

Storing Chicken Properly in Fridge or Freezer

To maximize how long chicken stays fresh, it’s important to store it properly in the refrigerator or freezer:

Refrigerating Chicken

  • Keep chicken in original store wrapping until ready to use
  • Place chicken on a plate or in a container to prevent juices from leaking
  • Store chicken on a lower fridge shelf away from ready-to-eat foods
  • Use ground chicken within 1-2 days, chicken pieces within 1-2 days, and whole chicken within 1-2 days

Freezing Chicken

  • Freeze chicken in air-tight freezer bags or containers
  • Portion chicken into smaller pieces or batches for easy thawing
  • Avoid freezing chicken for longer than 9-12 months, as quality declines over time
  • Thaw chicken overnight in fridge, never at room temperature

Proper refrigeration and freezing help chicken retain moisture, flavor, and texture. Always keep fresh or cooked chicken chilled at 40°F or below.

How Long Does Chicken Last in the Fridge?

Raw chicken that has been continuously refrigerated will keep for 1 to 2 days beyond the sell-by date printed on the package. Here are refrigerator shelf life guidelines for different types of raw chicken:

  • Whole chicken: 1-2 days
  • Chicken pieces: 1-2 days
  • Ground chicken: 1-2 days
  • Chicken deli meat: 3-5 days

Cooked chicken that has been stored in the fridge in air-tight containers will keep for 3 to 4 days. Discard any leftovers after 4 days.

How Long Does Chicken Last in the Freezer?

Freezing chicken is the best long-term storage method. Here is how long different kinds of chicken will last frozen:

  • Whole chicken: 9-12 months
  • Chicken pieces: 9 months
  • Ground chicken: 3-4 months
  • Cooked chicken meat: 2-3 months
  • Chicken deli meat: 1-2 months

Keep frozen chicken packaged in airtight freezer bags or containers to prevent freezer burn. Chicken that has been continuously frozen at 0°F will keep safe indefinitely, but quality will decrease over time.

Can Chicken Go Bad in the Fridge?

Yes, chicken can spoil in the refrigerator if stored incorrectly or kept for too long. Signs of spoiled chicken include:

  • Slimy flesh
  • Graying skin
  • Dull or faded color
  • Strong sour or ammonia smell
  • Mold growth

To maximize how long chicken stays fresh in the fridge, store it at 40°F or below on the bottom shelf. Use within 1-2 days for raw chicken pieces, 1-2 days for whole chicken, and 3-4 days for cooked chicken.

Can You Refreeze Thawed Chicken?

Previously frozen raw chicken can be safely refrozen if it was thawed in the refrigerator and has not been sitting at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. However, quality may start to decline after thawing and refreezing chicken multiple times. For best quality, try to cook thawed chicken within 3-4 days.

Refreezing cooked chicken is not recommended for safety reasons. Only refreeze thawed cooked chicken if it still contains ice crystals and has not been left out for longer than 2 hours at room temperature.

Does Cooked Chicken Go Bad Faster Than Raw?

Cooked chicken does not necessarily go bad faster than raw chicken. Raw chicken lasts 1-2 days beyond the sell-by date if refrigerated, and cooked chicken stored in the fridge lasts 3-4 days. However, cooked chicken has a shorter shelf life at room temperature than raw.

Here is a comparison of how long raw vs cooked chicken lasts:

  • Raw chicken:
    • Refrigerator: 1-2 days
    • Room temperature: 2 hours
  • Cooked chicken:
    • Refrigerator: 3-4 days
    • Room temperature: 2-4 hours

The reason raw chicken lasts slightly longer in the fridge is that cooking kills any bacteria present initially. However, new bacteria can begin multiplying on cooked chicken in the fridge faster than raw.

What Happens If You Eat Bad Chicken?

Eating spoiled chicken can cause foodborne illness, with symptoms like:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Headache and fever

Consuming bad chicken can also result in more serious complications, especially for those in high-risk groups like the elderly, infants, and people with weakened immune systems. Food poisoning from chicken requires prompt medical treatment to prevent dehydration or septicemia.

Bottom Line

Chicken should never sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. After 2 hours, bacteria can multiply quickly to dangerous levels. Cooked chicken should also be eaten, refrigerated, or frozen within 2 hours of cooking.

To prevent spoilage, store chicken on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator at 40°F or below. Use raw chicken within 1-2 days, and cooked chicken within 3-4 days. Freeze chicken for longer storage, up to 9-12 months for raw chicken. Discard chicken that has an off smell or appearance.

Eating bad chicken poses a high risk of food poisoning. So when in doubt, throw it out. Following proper storage methods and using food within recommended time limits will help prevent chicken from going bad.

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