How long can chicken sit out unrefrigerated?

Quick Answers

Raw chicken should not sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Cooked chicken should not sit out for more than 4 hours. After these times, bacteria can grow to unsafe levels and cause foodborne illness. Refrigerating or freezing chicken helps slow bacteria growth.


Properly handling and storing chicken is important to prevent bacterial contamination that can cause foodborne illness. Chicken is perishable and can be unsafe to eat if left out too long. This article will examine how long raw and cooked chicken can be left out at room temperature before bacteria grow to unsafe levels. We’ll also look at proper refrigerator and freezer storage times.

How Long Can Raw Chicken Sit Out?

Raw chicken should not be left out of refrigeration for longer than 2 hours. Poultry like chicken can harbor bacteria like Salmonella. When kept at room temperature, these bacteria can quickly multiply to dangerous levels that can cause illnesses.

Here are some key rules for raw chicken storage:

  • Only keep raw chicken out of the fridge for the time needed to prepare it for cooking.
  • Never let raw chicken sit out for longer than 2 hours before putting it back in the fridge.
  • On hot days above 90°F, only leave chicken out for 1 hour.

These short time limits help control bacteria growth. Placing the raw chicken back in the refrigerator as soon as possible restricts the multiplication of bacteria.

Why 2 Hours for Raw Chicken?

The 2 hour rule is based on science and research on how quickly bacteria can multiply on perishable foods left at room temperature.

According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), foodborne bacteria can rapidly multiply when food is in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F. This temperature range allows bacteria on chicken to quickly grow. Two hours is the maximum time recommended at room temperature to keep bacteria growth to safe levels.

The FSIS cites a scientific model showing how fast Salmonella bacteria multiply on chicken:

  • At room temperature, Salmonella on chicken can double every 20 minutes.
  • In 2 hours, just one bacteria can multiply to over 16,000 bacteria!

As you can see, room temperature chicken should not be left out longer than 2 hours. The 2 hour rule helps restrict bacteria levels for safe chicken consumption.

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out?

While raw chicken has a 2 hour room temperature limit, cooked chicken can be left out a little longer. According to the FSIS, cooked chicken can be safely left out at room temperature for up to 4 hours.

Here are some guidelines for cooked chicken storage:

  • Only leave cooked chicken out up to 4 hours before refrigeration.
  • Discard any chicken left out longer than 4 hours.
  • On hot days above 90°F, refrigerate cooked chicken within 2 hours.

Proper storing keeps cooked chicken safe from bacteria growth.

Why 4 Hours for Cooked Chicken?

The 4 hour time limit for cooked chicken also comes from food safety research.

Cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F kills harmful bacteria like Salmonella. However, the bacteria can still recontaminate the cooked chicken if it’s left out too long. Given enough time, these bacteria may multiply again to unsafe levels, even on cooked chicken.

According to FSIS research, cooked chicken left out longer than 4 hours in the danger zone (40°F – 140°F) can become unsafe:

  • At room temperature, bacteria on cooked chicken can double every 30 minutes.
  • In 4 hours, one bacteria can multiple to thousands.

Based on this science, cooked chicken should not sit out over 4 hours. Refrigerating cooked chicken after 4 hours restricts bacteria growth.

Proper Refrigerator & Freezer Storage

Along with room temperature times, proper cold storage is key for chicken safety. Refrigerating or freezing chicken restricts bacteria growth. Here are the proper storage times according to FSIS:

Raw Chicken Refrigerator Times

  • Whole chicken: 1-2 days
  • Parts: 1-2 days
  • Ground chicken: 1-2 days

Cooked Chicken Refrigerator Times

  • Chicken pieces/dishes: 3-4 days
  • Soup/stock: 3-4 days

Chicken Freezer Times

  • Raw whole chicken: 1 year
  • Raw parts: 9 months
  • Cooked chicken: 4-6 months
  • Chicken soups/stocks: 3-4 months

Following these fridge and freezer storage times prevents spoilage and restricts bacteria growth. Make sure your refrigerator is set below 40°F and freezer at 0°F or below. Cook or freeze chicken by the “use by” dates on packages. After thawing frozen chicken, use within 1-2 days.

Reheating Chicken Safely

If refrigerated properly, cooked chicken leftovers can be safely reheated. Follow these steps:

  • Reheat cooked chicken to 165°F. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.
  • Only reheat once. Do not keep reheating leftovers.
  • Reheat soup, gravy, and sauces to a full rolling boil.
  • If reheating in a microwave, stir and rotate periodically for even heating.
  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil when reheating.

These steps help destroy any bacteria that may have developed during storage. Cooked chicken reheated properly to 165°F is safe to eat.

Keep Hot Chicken Hot & Cold Chicken Cold

General food safety rules apply to cooked chicken as well. Follow these tips:

  • Keep just-cooked chicken hot until serving. Serve hot food right away or keep it above 140°F.
  • Discard any chicken left out at room temperature over 4 hours (2 hours if hotter than 90°F).
  • Once chicken is cooled, refrigerate within 4 hours. Divide into shallow containers for faster cooling.
  • When transporting cooked chicken (like for a picnic or potluck), keep hot chicken hot and cold chicken cold. Use an insulated container.

Following basic food safety helps keep cooked chicken safe from bacteria growth.


Chicken can go bad if left out too long at room temperature. Raw chicken should not sit out for over 2 hours, while cooked chicken can be left out up to 4 hours. Refrigerating or freezing chicken restricts bacteria growth that causes foodborne illness. Following proper storage times, cooking chicken thoroughly, and reheating chicken safely reduces your risk of getting sick from eating spoiled chicken. Keeping hot chicken hot and refrigerating cold chicken quickly are also key to chicken safety and preventing foodborne illness.

Leave a Comment