Crunching the Numbers: How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out?

August 21, 2022
Written by Kristy J. Norton

As a general rule, you can leave a cooked chicken out for a maximum of two hours and still consider it safe to eat.

I’ve worked as a chef for over a decade now, and one of our biggest concerns in commercial kitchens is the freshness of chicken and other meats. This is why I have spent many years learning all about this topic.

In this post, you will not only discover how long can cooked chicken sit out, you will also find out the various factors that can impact this time frame. Let’s begin!

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Out

How Long Can Cooked Chicken Sit Before Going Bad?

Why is it bad to eat chicken that has been left out longer than two hours?

A lot of people dont realize that bacteria is all around them, even in the air. When this bacteria settles on food such as cooked chicken, it is given a nutrition source to feed on.

To add to this, bacteria grows rapidly in temperatures between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C). In fact, the USDA refers to this range of temperatures as the Danger Zone. At this point, the number of microbes can double within 20 minutes.

After two hours, the number of bacteria on the cooked or leftover chicken will be significantly higher. This may be enough to cause disease or at the very least, an upset stomach.

You should know that the warmer that it is in your kitchen or home, the more quickly that the bacteria will multiply. Thus, if the temperature is greater than 90°F (32°C) you should only let the chicken stay on the kitchen counter for a maximum of one hour.

cooked chicken

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Is It Safe to Eat Food Left Out for 4 Hours?

You may be wondering what is the worst that can happen if you were to eat cooked meats or chicken if they have been sitting out for more than two hours.

The biggest concern here is Staphylococcus aureus – airborne contaminants that can land on any surface. It can be transmitted from humans into the surrounding environment. These microbes thrive in room temperature conditions.

If you were to ingest enough of this bacteria, then you could present with the following food poisoning symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Prostration

In severe cases you may also see muscle cramping and changes in blood pressure. It can often take two to three days to recover from eating spoiled meat.

Certain compromised individuals – especially children – may be even more likely to develop these symptoms. They may also experience a worse case as well.

Can I Eat Chicken Left Out for 6 Hours in Cold Weather?

It is clear that it is bad to let cooked chicken sit out at room temperature. However, what if it was in the middle of winter or the kitchen was very cold? How long can cooked chicken sit out when it is not in the danger zone?

Contrary to popular belief, there are still several strains of harmful bacteria that can survive and grow at cooler temperatures. In fact, some strains can even cause perishable foods to spoil in the refrigerator.

Now, it isn’t clear how quickly bacteria can reproduce at lower temperatures, but it may still be possible that you will end up with spoiled chicken after six hours. It is best not to take this chance.

Can You Eat Cooked Chicken If Left Out Overnight If You Reheat It?

It is common knowledge that heat can kill bacteria. This is one of the reasons we cook food at a certain temperature. Following this logic, you would imagine that if you were simply to heat the chicken that you left overnight that you would be able to avoid food poisoning.

This isn’t the case, however. The problem here is that many bacteria produce heat resistant toxins. Although the bacteria may be killed, the toxins that can cause food poisoning will still remain. Reheating your food will not have the desired impact.

How to Identify Cooked Chicken That Has Gone Bad?

The most obvious sign of food spoilage is a bad smell – it will smell rancid or simply off. If the cooked chicken has been sitting out for long enough in the danger zone, you may also have noticed that it has turned grey.

Technically, if the chicken has changed in any way since it was prepared, it may be an indication that it has gone bad.

raw defrosted chicken

It is important to remember that spoilage isn’t always evident. If your cooked chicken has only been left out for a few hours, then the bacteria growth may not be enough to cause certain signs.

This is why you shouldn’t take the risk of tasting the food. Even if tastes good, there may be a chance that you can still get sick from the cooked chicken. It is best to throw it away.

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How to Keep Cooked Chicken Safe?

In case you are wondering what to do with your cooked chicken leftovers, maintaining food safety is simple.

First, place the chicken in a sealed container immediately after serving food. If the chicken is still hot, allow it to cool down. You shouldn’t leave the chicken outside for more than an hour at most, though.

Once the chicken is cool enough, place it in the refrigerator. If you are planning on storing the cooked food for more than a few days, it is best to freeze leftovers instead. In the freezer, the cooked chicken can last for considerably longer.

How to Defrost Frozen Chicken Safely?

You may be wondering how to thaw frozen cooked chicken. The best safety precautions to follow here are to simply heat the chicken immediately. You can warm it up in the microwave, on the stove, or in the oven.

It is important that the chicken is heated all the way through. The middle of the chicken should be steaming. This guarantees that it is safe for yo to eat.

Never leave it to thaw on the counter. You can leave it in the fridge for a few hours so that the chicken isn’t quite so frozen. Once you remove it from the fridge, though, you should cook the meat immediately.

To wrap things up, two hours is the answer to how long can cooked chicken sit out. If the temperature in your kitchen is even warmer, it should be left out for more than an hour. It is important to follow these guidelines to keep you and your family safe.

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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