Left Chicken Out Overnight: Is It Safe to Eat?

No, if you have left chicken out overnight, it is no longer safe for consumption.

As a chef, food safety is just as important as creating delicious food. This is why I have to take a lot of care in how I store food before and after it has been cooked.

In this post I will determine whether it is ever safe to leave chicken out for extended periods of time. I will also show you how to properly store raw and cooked chicken. Let's get started!

Leaving Cooked Chicken Out - Can You Eat It?

A lot of people ask me - can you eat chicken left out overnight?

And, the answer is always no. Listen, we are all guilty of accidentally keeping leftover cooked chicken on the counter. When you discover it in the morning, the last thing that you want to do is to throw out all that meat.

However, you should and here's why:

Although you may not realize it, airborne, dangerous bacteria is all around you. And, every time that you leave something on the counter, these microbes have the opportunity to settle on food, including chicken. Once they are on the food, they multiply.

baked chicken

Bacteria is most likely to double in number at a temperature range known as the danger zone. Within 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit bacteria can grow rapidly, increasing the risk of food poisoning. So, you can imagine what happens if the chicken is left out overnight at room temperature.

In this case, how long can chicken be left out at room temperature?

The USDA recommends that you shouldn't let cooked chicken sit out for more than two hours. After this point, it needs to be refrigerated immediately.

What If You Reheat the Chicken?

Another question that I get quite often is - can't I just warm up the chicken again? Won't the heat kill bacteria? After all, this is one of the reasons we cook food in the first place!

Yes, cooking food at high temperatures can destroy bacteria. However, bacteria produce toxins. Many of these toxins are resistant to heat and can't be killed this way. Thus, you can still risk food poisoning by eating this cooked meat.

It's Winter - Is It Safe to Eat Chicken That Has Been Left Out?

Unless the temperature in your kitchen is below freezing and has remained that way since the chicken was placed outside, you will have the same problem as before.

To add to this, there are some strains of bacteria that can survive at cooler temperatures as well. Personally, I wouldn't take that chance.

How Can You Identify Spoiled Chicken?

The most common signs of chicken go bad are:

  • Change in color - meat is grey or green. Spots of discoloration on the meat.
  • Sour smell - any changes in odor where the meat smells odd or off
  • Slimy texture - the chicken is slimy to the touch

OK, so what if your cooked chicken has been left at room temp overnight but there are no signs of spoilage. The meat doesn't look unusual or have an off smell - can't you eat if seems alright?

Well, what a lot of people don't realize is that harmful bacteria doesn't always leave telltale signs. Therefore, the food may seem safe to eat but in reality it can make you very sick.

Of course, if notice any signs of spoiled meat or rotten chicken, throw away the food then and there, it is no longer safe to eat.

How to Safely Store Leftovers?

Then, what is the proper way to store your cooked chicken? Place it in a shallow sealed container and keep it on the kitchen counter. However, the two hour rule applies here as well so you shouldn't leave it out for more than two hours.

roasted chicken

I would advise you to put the chicken in the fridge before it reaches the danger zone. Contrary to popular belief, you can put hot foods in the refrigerator. If you have cooked a whole chicken I would suggest cutting it up and placing it in smaller containers. This way, they will cool down more quickly.

If you aren't planning on eating the chicken in the next few days, you should freeze it as the meat can be good for months at a time. Technically, you can keep the meat for four to six months.

I wouldn't let the meat sit in the freeze for that long, however. Yes, it will still be safe to eat, but there will be changes to the texture and perhaps even the taste. As such, it won't be as enjoyable.

Can Raw Chicken Be Left Out Overnight?

No, it absolutely cannot! In fact, it can be argued that keeping raw chicken out on the counter overnight can be even worse than with cooked chicken.

Not only can bacteria grow just as well on this surface, but raw chicken is often contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria and sometimes even with salmonella and Clostridium perfringens.

Due to this, there is a chance that you may get quite sick if you cook and eat raw chicken that has been left out.

How to Store Raw Chicken?

Once you bring the chicken home from the store, place it in the refrigerator immediately. It shouldn't be left out on the counter for any period of time. Make sure that it is tightly wrapped in a plastic bag or in a sealed container.

Place the chicken on the bottommost drawer. This reduces the chance of any juices or liquids leaking onto other foods and produce. In turn, you reduce the risk of contamination.

Raw chicken shouldn't be left in the fridge for longer than two days. If you aren't going to be cooking it in this time frame, it is best to freeze it right away.

How Long Can You Freeze Chicken For?

If you are freezing a whole chicken then it can be frozen for up to a year. Pieces, on the other hand, can be frozen for up to nine months at a time. Make sure that the chicken is properly wrapped or packaged prior to freezing.

Can You Let Frozen Chicken Sit Out Overnight?

Are you guilty of leaving frozen chicken on the kitchen counter for several hours or overnight? You're not the only one - most people prefer to defrost chicken this way as it saves time the next day.

Here's the problem, though, once the chicken warms up enough, bacteria can begin to grow on it. The more time that it is left out, the more bacteria can grow on it. And, as already mentioned, cooking the chicken isn't going to make much difference.

How to Safely Defrost Chicken?

The best way to thaw chicken is to do so in a cool environment where bacteria is less likely to grow. Place the chicken in a dish or bowl and keep it in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the bird, this can take up to 24 hours.

Pressed for time? Then seal the chicken in a zip lock bag and submerge it in cold water. And, yes, the water must be cold. Remember, bacteria can grow in a warmer environment.

Really don't have much time to spare? Then you can microwave the chicken. I'm not going to lie, this isn't my favorite method. Microwaves cook food unevenly so some spots may have defrosted while others are still frozen solid.

There is also the fact that once microwaved, the chicken is in the danger method. So, if you do choose this method, make sure to cook the chicken soon afterward.

How to Thaw Cooked Chicken?

What if you have frozen a cooked chicken - how can you thaw meat then? Well, once again, the best way is to let the chicken sit in the refrigerator for several hours. Unlike with raw chicken, it doesn't have to be thawed all the way through.

You can cook the meat on the stovetop or in the oven once it is more or less done.

What Would Happen If You Ate Food Left Out Overnight?

When most people think of food poisoning, they imagine symptoms such as mild vomiting or diarrhea. Even if the issue is more intensive, it is likely to resolve itself in a couple of days. This is why some may throw caution to the wind and eat food that has been left out.

Well, did you know that this issue can become quite serious? Older adults, children, and individuals with a compromised immune system are more likely to experience more severe bouts. This can lead to dehydration and even kidney failure in certain circumstances.

Even with milder cases, you may need to be hospitalized to replenish your fluids. In short, it is important to be smart and to discard cooked or uncooked chicken if it has been left out at room temperature for too long.

This is what you need to know about keeping chicken out for any period of time. You now know the correct way to store chicken as well, ensuring that you can keep you and your family safe! Keep these details and tips and tricks in mind whenever you want to store or cool chicken.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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