How long can cooked chicken sit out? Today we take an in-depth look at leaving chicken to sit out at room temperature, and what the potential risks are. I’ve even included the proper storage methods for cooked chicken and answered some commonly asked questions.
If you enjoy reading educational articles like these, make sure to check out the many others I have on my site. Some that you may find interesting include How To Reheat Pizza In The Air Fryer and How To Tell If Pork Is Bad.
How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out?
Before asking how long, let’s first ask, “Can you leave cooked chicken out overnight?” The short answer is no. Not overnight. Usually, the term “overnight” refers to a time period of anywhere between 6-10 hours.
Even if you are talking about the minimum here (which is 6 hours), it’s not possible.
So then, how long can cooked chicken be left out? There is only one answer here, and that’s for a maximum of 2 hours. There are no exceptions to the rule and under no circumstances should you risk leaving it out for longer.
Sure, many people have, and nothing happened to them. But that came down to pure luck. I always refer back to this shocking statistic: Almost 50 million Americans get food poisoning every year!
So, while the odds of actually dying from cooked chicken that had been left out is slim, the odds of getting sick are significantly higher, almost inevitable!
Bottom Line: How Long Can Chicken Sit Out?
Just to recap, you can only leave cooked chicken at room temperature for a maximum of 2 hours.
Unless you can keep that temperature above 140ºF (60ºC), you cannot leave it out.
So, needless to say, leaving cooked chicken out overnight is an absolute no-go. And it doesn’t matter if the chicken is in a sauce or a baked casserole. It’s outside, and therefore the risk of getting ill from it is increased.
What Happens When You Leave Chicken Out?
If you leave cooked (or raw) chicken to sit out at room temperature, it falls perfectly in the temperature danger zone. This zone describes a range of temperatures at which bacteria can grow and rapidly reproduce.
This zone ranges between 40-140ºF (4.4-60ºC).
On the lower end of that range, chicken is usually kept inside a fridge. At these temperatures, bacteria can still grow, but it does so much more slowly. This is why a fridge ultimately extends the shelf life of foods. Bacteria cannot grow as quickly to ruin them.
At the higher end of this spectrum, bacteria are actually killed by the heat. Most of the bacteria that grow on chicken are killed at 140ºF (60ºC). That’s why you have to hold the chicken at 140ºF if you want to “leave it outside.”
So, at room temperature, bacteria can thrive. This means they can multiply to extremely hazardous and deadly numbers in mere hours. For safety, the USDA recommends not exceeding 2 hours.
What Happens If You Eat Cooked Chicken That Sat Out?
The risk of food poisoning is extremely high. In fact, I would be shocked if you don’t get sick in some way.
Common symptoms of food poisoning you get from cooked chicken include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and headaches.
While you won’t necessarily die, I don’t enjoy spending an entire day in bed sick. And again, there is quite a big risk you can go to the hospital. It depends on the bacteria you’ve ingested, the amounts, and the current state of your immune system.
How to Properly Store Cooked Chicken
Now, you know cooked chicken cannot sit out. So, how do you store it?
Once your chicken has been cooked, you can leave it at room temperature to cool before storing it. In fact, you have to.
Storing warm or hot foods in an airtight container actually promotes bacterial growth and causes the food to spoil quickly.
Once the cooked chicken or chicken dish has cooled down (almost completely), you can place it inside an airtight container. If you have the chicken in a baking dish or roasting pan, you can also simply wrap the container or tray with plastic or saran wrap.
When the chicken is wrapped up, you can place it inside the fridge. Cooked meats should always be stored at the top of the fridge. That’s because it’s the second warmest area in the fridge (after the fridge door). This leaves the colder areas for ingredients that are fresh or raw.
Store cooked meats together on the same shelf. Don’t store cooked chicken close to raw chicken (or meat), fresh vegetables, and dairy.
Can You Freeze Cooked Chicken?
It is possible to freeze cooked chicken. I sometimes do this when making a large batch of Chicken Pasteles En Hoja.
However, after you’ve placed the cooked chicken or chicken dish in an airtight container, you have to wrap the entire container with foil.
A layer of aluminum foil helps protect the contents from excess freezer burn. Freezer burn ruins the texture of food, and ultimately, its flavor as well.
So, this one simple step can help maintain the integrity of your cooked chicken much better.
If you properly store cooked chicken inside the fridge, it will easily last between 3-4 days. Don’t keep the chicken for longer than this period, and make sure to always check its freshness before reheating and eating it.
The type of cooked chicken doesn’t affect how long it can sit out. The rule is still 2 hours at the most! That being said, you may likely not want to leave it out for longer. The crispy texture will become soggy quickly.
Cooked chicken that has gone bad will usually discolor first. It will become pale and sometimes even green. You can also look out for any texture changes. If cooked chicken becomes slimy or sticky, it should be tossed. And, if you see any mold growth, it is definitely past its use-by date.