We all did it—rushed to get dinner on the table after work, slung the dishes in the sink, and realized the next day that we’d left some food out!
But what if you’ve left your cooked chicken out overnight, perhaps after leaving it to cool? Can you just pop it into the fridge and forget about it?
So, is cooked chicken left out overnight safe to eat? Cooked chicken can only be left out of the fridge for 2 hours. After this time, your cooked chicken is no longer safe to eat and must be discarded. To reduce exposure to bacteria, it is also important that chicken is stored correctly when left out of the fridge.
But why is cooked chicken so risky to eat if it has been left out overnight? We have got everything you need to know right here!
We will also look at how to store cooked chicken safely, plus some top tips on keeping cooked chicken cool without a refrigerator.
How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out?
Food safety is a high priority for all home chefs, and we all try our utmost to avoid serving or eating food that might be past its best.
However, imagine the disappointment when you find the remnants of last night’s roast chicken left on the counter. Do you have to throw it out?
Unfortunately, cooked chicken meat can only sit out at room temperature for 2 hours before it must be discarded. In warmer temperatures, this time limit is reduced to just 1 hour.
In reality, two hours is very little time at all! If you’re buying cooked chicken from the store, you have just 2 hours from the time you lift it from the shelf until it is in your refrigerator.
If you’re in a heatwave, the race is on to get it home and chilled within 1 hour!
As painful as it might be to have to discard cooked chicken, these time limits must be adhered to. So, to avoid food waste, get your leftover chicken pot roast into the refrigerator as soon as it is cool!
Why Does Cooked Chicken Go Bad So Quickly?
Like all meat products, whether raw or cooked, the chicken will quickly go bad if left at room temperature. There are two reasons for this:
At temperatures of just 40°F and above, bacteria and microorganisms will start to multiply up to 5 times faster.
Most households maintain a room temperature of 68°F, which is heaven if you are a colony of bacteria!
If cooked chicken is left uncovered, it will be exposed to air and higher numbers of bacteria. This can result in a bacteria density at levels of twice or more than raw chicken stored in a sealed container.
What Happens When Cooked Chicken Is Left Out For Too Long?
Cooked chicken that has been left out for a couple of hours will, in all likelihood, look and smell completely fine. You might be tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt, but we would strongly recommend that you avoid the temptation to eat it!
If cooked chicken has sat out at room temperature for too long, invisible bacteria will multiply to levels that will cause foodborne illness.
So, although your chicken might look, smell, and taste normal, many hidden nasties are lurking inside!
Once this has happened, it will take no time for the bacteria to turn your cooked chicken into a rotten, slimy, putrid mess. Once it gets to this stage, you would certainly not consider eating it!
What Can Health Problems Be Caused By Cooked Chicken?
If you eat cooked chicken that has spoiled, in many cases, you will be absolutely fine with no side effects at all. However, high levels of bacteria mean that you risk a very nasty case of food poisoning.
And, as anyone who has ever suffered from food poisoning will tell you, it is not worth the risk!
Symptoms of food poisoning include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, lethargy, dizzy episodes, and bloody stools. In severe cases, dehydration can occur, and you will need to be hospitalized.
Seriously, don’t mess with chicken when it comes to food poisoning!
How Can You Tell If Cooked Chicken Is Spoiled?
The problem is that you cannot always tell if a cooked chicken is spoiled! Cooked chicken that has been left out at room temperature for an hour or two may look, smell, and feel completely normal.
However, there is a big risk that harmful bacteria and microorganisms will already have multiplied to the point that the chicken is unfit for consumption.
So, if you are in any doubt, throw it out!
But what if you’re unsure how long your cooked chicken has been left out? Perhaps you came home from work to find your teenager left it out of the fridge?
Or you’re dealing with the remnants of a cold buffet and are unsure how long the chicken has been out on the table?
Here are some tell-tale signs that cooked chicken is spoiled and going rotten:
Cooked chicken does not smell quite as bad as raw chicken when it starts to go rotten, but it will still have a noticeable smell. Cooked chicken should have barely any smell at all.
Freshly cooked chicken meat is either white or brown, depending on whether it is breast or leg meat. As it starts to deteriorate, it will get a greeny-blue sheen, and you might even see a fine layer of mold.
Changes in texture are a tell-tale sign that your cooked chicken has started to go bad. When rotten, cooked chicken feels slimy to the touch—this is a sign that bacteria are accumulating on the surface of the chicken. Yuck!
Remember – you may not see any of these signs that your cooked chicken has gone bad, but this does not mean it is OK to eat! If in any doubt at all, throw it out and find something else for dinner.
How To Safely Leave Cooked Chicken Out At Room Temperature
Hopefully, at this stage, we have not completely put you off eating chicken! Chicken is a firm favorite in many family kitchens and can be enjoyed as long as just a few simple rules are followed.
Just imagine the delightful aroma and flavor of a golden whole roast chicken, delicious juicy BBQ legs and wings, or a succulent chicken salad—absolutely delicious!
If you have bought some cooked chicken from the store or have some in the fridge, you might need to leave it out at room temperature before eating. Let’s take a look at the best way to do this safely:
The absolute maximum time your cooked chicken can sit out is for 2 hours at temperatures below 90°F and 1 hour at temperatures above this.
Remember, this is the maximum time. The sooner your cooked chicken goes into the fridge or is consumed, the better.
If you are buying cooked chicken from the store, make the butchery counter your last stop before traveling home.
Pack the cooked chicken with any other chilled goods you have purchased to help keep it cool. A cool bag can be a worthwhile investment, especially if you live in a warm climate.
When it comes to eating cooked chicken, many of us prefer the flavor of it if it is allowed to come to room temperature.
To reduce the length of time you need to leave your cooked chicken out of the fridge, take out smaller servings such as drumsticks or sliced breast. This should take 15-30 minutes to come to room temperature.
The temperature of a room is a critical factor when it comes to how long cooked chicken meat can sit out safely.
It might sound extremely hot, but on a sunny day, it is not unrealistic for temperatures of 90°F to be reached inside a busy kitchen.
To stay safe, make use of cool shaded areas of the kitchen for your cooked chicken, or use a cooler room in the house.
Remember that it is not just heat that causes the cooked chicken to spoil—exposure to air is also a large factor. Keep cooked chicken covered up at all times, ideally in an airtight bag or container.
One helpful strategy is to place your cooked chicken on a plate in the refrigerator, either inside your airtight container or underneath it.
When you lift the cooked chicken out of the fridge, the plate will help to keep it chilled until you are ready to use it.
How To Store Cooked Chicken Safely
The general rule is that cooked chicken can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. So, if you’ve got some raw chicken that is nearing its use-by date, cooking it will give you a few more days to eat it.
Cooked chicken should be stored in an airtight container or bag at the bottom of the fridge to avoid contamination with other foodstuffs.
If you have cooked chicken that is going to be consumed, chilled, or frozen within one hour, it can be left out at room temperature. Chicken that will not be consumed within four days should be frozen rather than refrigerated.
How To Reheat Cooked Chicken Safely
Cooked chicken is one of the most versatile leftover ingredients a home chef can have! A pot roast chicken dinner on the weekend gives us a myriad of midweek dinner options.
But as with all reheated foods, there are some important rules to remember to keep our food safe to eat.
Firstly, the cooked chicken should only be reheated once. This is the golden rule for all foods—it can be heated once to cook it and heated one more time again. After this, you can eat it cold, but you should not reheat it again.
Imagine you’ve got some roast chicken left over from the weekend, and you cook up a big batch of chicken curry the following day with the leftovers. Theoretically, you cannot reheat this curry, as it has already been heated twice!
And although many people disregard this rule, every time the meat is reheated, there will be an opportunity for bacteria to multiply.
Chilling, freezing, and cooking the meat does not kill these bacteria, so they will lurk inside your leftovers, ready to cause gastrointestinal havoc!
So, bearing in mind the “reheat only once” rule, these are the best ways to reheat cooked chicken:
In The Oven
This method is best for chicken that has a crispy texture, such as breaded chicken drumsticks or fried chicken thighs.
Set the chicken on a wire rack over a baking sheet, and pop it into an oven preheated to 400°F. Bake the chicken for 15 minutes and eat it straight away.
If you want to reheat the tender, juicy chicken, such as slices of breast, you will want to lock in as much moisture as possible. This means sealing the cooked chicken either inside a small covered dish or with kitchen foil.
In The Microwave
You won’t be able to keep chicken crispy in the microwave, but this is a great method for quickly warming up some shredded cooked chicken for a post-school snack.
Place the chicken on a plate and drizzle with a splash of water, oil, or chicken broth. Cover loosely with microwave-safe wrap and heat on full power for at least two minutes.
On The Stove
This is how most people reheat the cooked chicken, as this is one of the best ingredients to add to a midweek stovetop dinner!
You can cook any liquid-based dish as normal and simply add your cooked chicken pieces for the final few minutes of the cooking time.
In The Air Fryer
Got a glut of crispy chicken wings on your hands? Pop them into the air fryer, and they’ll come out perfectly crisp and fresh! A spritz with an air fryer-safe cooking spray will give an added level of crispiness.
Other Questions Asked
Now that we’ve gone over what to do if you left your cooked chicken out overnight. Let’s look at a few related questions on the subject!
How long can cooked chicken be stored in the freezer?
Cooked chicken can be safely stored in the freezer for up to 4 months. This is a great method for preserving cooked chicken that will not be eaten before it goes bad.
However, cooked chicken can quickly deteriorate in taste and texture in the freezer and must be carefully packaged to protect against freezer burn.
The best way to prevent freezer burn is to use airtight containers to store your cooked chicken. Popping the chicken into a Ziplock bag or inside a layer of clingfilm will also help to prevent exposure to air.
How should cooked chicken be defrosted?
Frozen cooked chicken should ideally be defrosted in chilled conditions, such as in the refrigerator or a cold water bath. This method takes longer but is the safest way to defrost the cooked chicken.
If you are in a hurry, cooked chicken can be defrosted at room temperature. However, it should be consumed within an hour of defrosting or placed in the refrigerator.
Cooked chicken can also be thawed out using the defrost setting on the microwave. If this method is used, the chicken must be consumed or reheated as soon as it has thawed.
This is because the microwave will start to warm the cooked chicken, creating the perfect conditions for bacteria to multiply.Up Next: How To Cook Boudin
Heya, I’m Norah! The foodie editor here at YummyTasteFood! I love absolutely everything to do with food, baking, and eating! I earned my stripes in the hospitality industry as a pastry chef, sous chef, and barista. I’m now a freelance writing nomad. I do not miss the hospitality industry! Be sure to join our Facebook group – it’s free to access!