Chicken is the most common type of poultry globally, and its meat is an excellent source of lean protein. Because chicken meat is relatively inexpensive, it is not uncommon to purchase and prepare it in large batches. The leftovers often spend days in the fridge, so it is crucial to know if these are still safe to eat.
If chicken is cooked thoroughly and stored properly, it is perfectly safe to eat while cold. Studies have shown that cold chicken exhibits far less bacterial growth at room temperature than warm chicken. Many recipes incorporate cold chicken, such as sandwiches, salads, and pasta.
Chicken is thoroughly cooked when it has reached the appropriate temperature. Once cooked, chicken needs to be stored correctly to maximize shelf life. This article will explain how to cook and store chicken properly and discuss the shelf life of cooked chicken in the fridge.
Can You Eat Cold Chicken
Bacteria do not spontaneously appear in food. Food can only make you sick if bacteria was introduced to it and then allowed to multiply.
Cooking chicken meat to 165- or 180-degrees Fahrenheit effectively sterilizes it. Storing chicken below 40 degrees Fahrenheit shortly after cooking slows down the growth of any bacteria. After these steps, cold chicken is safe to eat right out of the fridge for 3-4 days.
Harmful bacteria tend to multiply in food when it is between 40- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit. This is often called the “danger zone”. Keeping chicken out of this range ensures that it remains edible.
If chicken is taken out of the fridge and left on the counter, it goes up to room temperature (which is usually within the danger zone) and stays there. Bacteria could then flourish, and if chicken remains at room temperature for two hours or more, it may no longer be safe to eat.
It is perfectly fine to eat cold chicken, since it tastes like any other cooked chicken and has the same nutritional benefits. Some chicken might even taste better cold, since some time in the fridge can allow seasonings and flavorings to develop. Cold chicken also has a slightly firmer texture, which makes it better suited to sandwiches and salads.
How to Know if Chicken is Cooked
Raw chicken contains harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus, and Campylobacter. These bacteria proliferate at temperatures within the “danger zone”, which are both above fridge temperature and below cooking temperature.
The presence of harmful bacteria makes raw chicken dangerous. Eating raw or undercooked chicken, even in small amounts, can cause symptoms of food poisoning such as diarrhea and vomiting.
For chicken to become safe to eat, it needs to be cooked to internal temperatures that are high enough to kill harmful microorganisms. These temperatures are 165 degrees Fahrenheit for chicken pieces or patties and 180 degrees Fahrenheit for whole chicken.
To make sure your chicken is thoroughly cooked, use a food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat to find its internal temperature.
Any leftovers must be refrigerated or frozen within two hours of cooking, or within an hour if the ambient temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Storing leftovers in small, shallow containers will allow these to both freeze and thaw more quickly.
Separating leftovers into small containers also lets you take them out in portions, thereby avoiding repeated freezing (or refrigerating) and thawing (or reheating). Since freeze-thaw cycles degrade chicken meat, minimizing these prolongs shelf life.
Is Reheating Cooked Chicken Dangerous
Reheating cooked chicken is not technically dangerous, and if every single part of the chicken reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it is safe to eat; however, this might be difficult to achieve.
Reheating is usually done with a microwave oven, whose heat only penetrates ¾ to 1 ½ inch into food. Using a microwave oven to reheat chicken can result in uneven heating, and there can be portions of the meat that never reach the temperature required.
You can achieve better results by flipping the chicken halfway through the reheating time and using a food thermometer to check that every part of the meat has reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit. However, microwaving chicken also tends to impart a “warmed-over flavor,” or WOF.
WOF is usually described as stale, cardboard-like, or faintly rancid. It tends to occur in cooked meats that have been refrigerated for 24 hours or more and then reheated. WOF is caused by the breakdown of the fats in the meat.
The texture of refrigerated chicken also changes when it is microwaved, and becomes spongy. Thus, it is best to reheat chicken the same way it was cooked. For example, baked chicken should be reheated in the oven, and fried chicken should be lightly re-fried.
How Long Does Cooked Chicken Last
Shelf life of Cooked Chicken
|Frozen||0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower||Safe to eat – indefinitely
Best eaten within 4 months
|Refrigerated||0-40 degrees Fahrenheit||3-4 days|
|Room temperature||68-72 degrees Fahrenheit||2 hours|
If chicken is refrigerated within two hours of cooking and stored properly, it can last up to 3 or 4 days in the fridge. Chicken should be stored in a sealed container, such as a plastic container with a lid. It should also be kept away from any raw meats to prevent contamination.
Chicken spoils in the refrigerator after 3-4 days because the temperature is only low enough to slow down, and not completely prevent bacterial growth. Reheating will not make spoiled chicken safe to eat because foodborne illnesses are often caused by the toxins produced by bacteria, many of which are resistant to heat.
Even if the bacteria are destroyed by reheating, the toxins that have accumulated will be left behind. For example, the toxins produced by Staphylococcal bacteria (which are common foodborne pathogens) are resistant to heat and cause nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.
You can maximize the shelf life of your cooked chicken by freezing it. If chicken is kept constantly at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be edible indefinitely. However, even though the chicken remains safe to eat, its flavor and texture will slowly degrade in the freezer, so it is still best to consume frozen cooked chicken within four months.
To minimize the deterioration of cooked chicken in the freezer, you can wrap the chicken tightly in freezer wrap or cling film. Covering up the entire surface like this prevents moisture loss, which could lead to freezer burn. Discoloration and a tough, leathery texture are characteristics of freezer-burned meat.
You can further prevent moisture loss (and freezer burn) by placing the wrapped chicken in an airtight bag, making sure to push all the air out before sealing it shut. Contact with cold, dry air can also cause moisture to escape from your food.
Finally, you can defrost frozen cooked chicken by slowly thawing it in your refrigerator for 24-48 hours. It is not advisable to reheat frozen chicken directly since the surface can become hot while the center is still cold, so only reheat the chicken once it is fully thawed.