Whether slow-cooked, roasted, fried or grilled, we love tucking into a chicken dinner. This protein-rich ingredient is inexpensive, versatile and always satisfying. Best of all, you don’t need to possess a culinary degree to cook it (unlike, say, smoked brisket or sous-vide duck confit). Yep, chicken is one of our favorite ingredients, which is why it appears so regularly on our dinner plates...and then in our refrigerators the next day. And that’s when a problem crops up. Because don’t get us wrong, we love the convenience of leftovers, just not necessarily as back-to-back meals. So how long can cooked chicken stay in the fridge? Read on for the answer.
How Long Can Cooked Chicken Stay in the Fridge? (Hint: Not as Long as You Think)
How Long Can Cooked Chicken Stay in the Fridge?
According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) cooked chicken will stay fresh for three to four days when stored in the fridge. This guideline applies to all cooked chicken, whether it was roasted whole, fried, sautéed in tomato sauce, made in your kitchen or taken home from a restaurant. In other words, as long as you stay within that three to four days window, you can absolutely treat yourself to a steak dinner before you revisit that poultry you cooked up two days ago.
Of course, the three to four-day rule only works if you’ve followed proper food safety measures in the first place. To ensure your cooked chicken lives its best (and longest) life, make sure it has reached an internal temperature of 165°F and then store the leftovers in the fridge within two hours. Finally, per the FSIS, don’t try to get a head start on tomorrow’s meal by browning or partially cooking chicken and then refrigerating it in the hopes of finishing the job later—that’s a recipe for gastrointestinal disaster.
3 Signs Your Cooked Bird Has Gone Bad
You made crispy chicken tenders on Monday night and the leftovers are still sitting in your fridge on Thursday. Do you make a move while you still can or did your bird spoil on day three? The prospect of food poisoning is enough to make anyone agonize over the decision. Fortunately, you don’t need to though, because the signs that cooked chicken has gone bad are hard to miss. To determine whether your leftovers are still safe to eat, give your poultry a quick work-up and assess the following:
1. Color. Cooked chicken will look brown or white in color when it first goes in the fridge. Once your poultry is past its prime, however, it will start taking on a sickly gray or green appearance—and that’s when you take a hard pass.
2. Smell. Take a whiff of your leftover chicken. If it doesn’t smell the same as it did on day one, that’s an indication of spoilage. If the chicken is really rotten it will smell offensively rancid but trust your instincts even if it smells subtly ‘off.’ As they say, the nose always knows.
3. Texture. Raw chicken is supposed to be slimy. Cooked chicken...not so much. If your previously cooked piece of protein feels like it has a slimy film on it, there’s a good chance your bird has seen better days (and you’ll see worse ones if you eat it).
How to Freeze Chicken
So what do you do when you have more chicken than you can consume in three to four days? Freeze it. The FSIS says that cooked chicken will keep for up to 4 months when stored in the freezer. The sooner your leftovers make the move from the fridge to the freezer the better, though. (i.e., don’t opt for long-term storage on day four.) Here’s the best way to freeze cooked chicken:
1. Flash freeze leftovers. If your chicken meal is still warm, you’ll want to lower the temperature as quickly as possible so it doesn’t linger in the ‘danger zone’. To do this, place the pieces of chicken on a sheet pan and send them to the freezer until they’re chilled through roughly an hour. (Note: Whole birds will need to be butchered into pieces before flash freezing.) Of course, you can skip this step entirely for leftovers that have been thoroughly chilled in the fridge for a day or two.
2. Wrap the chicken. To avoid freezer burn—that bummer that turns delicious food into something dry and tasteless—shrink wrap your flash-frozen pieces of chicken with a tight layer of plastic wrap.
3. Bag it up. Once the chicken pieces have been swaddled in plastic wrap, store them in sealed freezer bags or an airtight plastic container for an extra layer of protection. Date the storage container(s) and send the chicken pieces to the back of the freezer, where they will be safe from temperature fluctuations.
Bottom line: Freezing chicken is an easy and straightforward way to avoid wasting leftovers (and eating the same chicken bake four days in a row). Just be sure to use the frozen fruits of your labor within four months.