When it comes to food, we probably never think about how cooked food can be potentially harmful (or fatal). And tragically, the average eater has not received a food safety course on how to cook and consume all things without getting violently ill (or worse). For animal proteins (ie meat), the Cliffs Notes version is to cook them thoroughly and to keep raw produce away from raw meat, particularly chicken, which poses unique risks when left out at room temperature, even when it is fully cooked.
with that said, how long can cooked chicken sit out, you ask? The answer: Not so long.
How long can cooked chicken sit out?
We’ve all forgotten to put leftovers in the fridge after dinner, maybe remembering hours later right before bed. And we’re lucky we didn’t get serious food poisoning because of it (unless you did, and in that cause, we’re sorry). why? Because cooked chicken isn’t supposed to be left out very long.
“It is recommended that one refrigerates or freezes cooked chicken two hours after cooking,” Martin BucknavageMS, instructor and senior food safety extension associate at the Penn State University Department of food science, tells Parade.
If we’re talking about 121 minutes—which isn’t ideal—the extra 60 seconds (probably) won’t kill you. But in the worst-case scenario? If you leave your nuggets out overnight with an unlucky amount of moisture and the absence of oxygen, and the toxin Clostridium botulinum happens to be present, the stuff could multiple to unsafe numbers that can be deadly when consumed, Bucknavage explains. Even if you plan to refrigerate it and recook it, the damage might already be done with the amount of bacteria now on the meat. So while it’s never ideal to waste food, if your chicken has been left out for more than two hours, your safest bet is to toss it.
What happens when cooked chicken is left out?
If you think his advice—which echoes that of the USDA and FDA btw—seems too cautious, think again. Cooking poultry properly, (preparing in a clean cooking environment, heating to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, etc.) only eliminates pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.
But spore-forming bacterial pathogens such as Clostridium perfringens or Bacillus cereus can actually survive the cooking process, Bucknavage warns. In low levels, they are not harmful, but when left at room temperature or higher for an extended period, they can multiply to risky levels. And their spellings aren’t the only scary part: These germs can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and/or vomiting within six to 24 hours of consumption and stick around for up to a day.
Another issue is recontamination. Bucknavage warns: Organisms such as Staphylococcus aureus, which is common in the environment including on our skin, can multiply on cooked chicken left out for too long and produce toxins that make you ill with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and/or stomach cramps.
But if you still want to eat leftover chicken after all those tricky words and potential illnesses, there’s good news. Protecting yourself from food-borne illnesses can be as easy as opening your fridge and popping the cooked poultry inside. And a bonus? This can also reduce the growth of bacteria that may otherwise prematurely spoil perfectly good leftovers.
Related: 40 Fun Chicken Breast Recipes to Make Dinner a Lot Less Boring
Does Wrapping My Chicken Up Help If I Can’t Get It in the Fridge Fast Enough?
“Covering or wrapping will help reduce incidental contamination,” Bucknavage says. But Saranwrap, silver foil, and Tupperware won’t fully protect the cooked chicken from what he refers to as “temperature abuse.” This is when, in temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a number of pathogenic organisms may very well grow on covered chicken. The higher the temperature, and the longer it sits out, the greater the risk, Bucknavage says.
And if you’re reusing any of the aforementioned food storage solutions after they played a role in preserving raw chicken, you’re really out of luck. Pathogens such as Salmonella that may have been present on the raw poultry can reinfect cooked chicken and contribute to even greater risk.
“It’s important to keep the environment where the cooked bird will be handled clean,” Bucknavage says. “It is especially critical for all of the surfaces and utensils where the raw poultry was handled.” This goes for indoor and outdoor cooking, where best practices can often fall by the wayside due to the inconvenience of say, seeking out an indoor sink for hand washing and sanitizing cooking utensils.
Related: How Long Does Cooked Chicken Last In The Fridge?
Does Reheating Chicken That Has Been Left Out Too Long Protect Me?
Because heat doesn’t eliminate multiple pathogens at room temperature, zapping mistreated leftovers in the microwave or using other cooking methods won’t undo the damage. If you have any questions about whether your chicken was chilled responsibly, toss it.
Related: Ground Chicken Recipes
I’m Serving Chicken During a Gathering That Will Last Longer Than Two Hours. Now What?
If you’ve ever eaten off a buffet and lived to tell the tale, credit is warm for keeping you safe: “The critical factor [when serving] meat or poultry is using a heat source and covering the food to maintain a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher throughout,” Bucknavage says. He also warns that insufficient warmth—say, 110 degrees Fahrenheit—will support rapid pathogen growth. It’s one more reason why food thermometers aren’t optional in safe cooking.
The Bottom Line
It’s always smart to make a plan for using extra prepared food. Either make exactly the amount you and fellow diners plan to eat, or precipitously pop leftovers in the fridge or freezer.
“Too often, I’m asked what to do with something that was not properly cooked, was left out too long or was stored too long,” Bucknavage says. “Food is too expensive, and the result of being sick is too costly not to follow the simple procedures for cooking, cleaning and storage.”