Left Chicken Out Overnight: Is It Safe to Eat?

September 20, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton
Edited by John Smits 

If you have left chicken out overnight, it is no longer safe for consumption. Sorry. Toss that bird in the trash. That chicken has been sitting in “The Danger Zone” (more on that in a bit) for far too long, letting bacteria multiply and create toxins. No bueno!

As a chef, food safety is as important to me as creating delicious food. This is why I take a lot of care in how I store food before and after it has been cooked. Food safety was drilled into us at culinary school.

I’ll go over how long it’s safe to leave chicken out at room temperature. I will also show you how to properly store raw and cooked chicken. Let’s get started!

Left chicken out overnight

Leaving Cooked Chicken Out Overnight – Can You Eat It?

The answer is always no. When you discover you left some chicken out on the counter the next morning, you might think the last thing that you want to do is throw out all that meat. Actually, the last thing you want to do is consume that chicken. Here’s why:

Airborne bacteria are all around you. And, every time that you leave meat (like chicken) on the counter, these microbes have the opportunity to settle on food. Once they are on the food, they multiply.

Bacteria increase most rapidly at a temperature range known as “The Danger Zone.” The Danger Zone for food is temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. Bacteria can grow rapidly at these temps, increasing the risk of food poisoning. 

The USDA recommends storing chicken (and all cooked meats) after they’ve been sitting out for 2 hours or after 1 hour if the temperature is above 90°F. If you’ve left chicken out overnight, it’s been sitting out for far longer than 2 hours. Don’t eat it. It’s likely riddled with bacteria and their toxins.

What If You Reheat the Chicken?

Reheating chicken that’s left out too long doesn’t make it safe to eat. I get this question all the time – 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. Dispose of any chicken that’s been left out for too long.

It’s Winter – Is It Safe to Eat Chicken That Has Been Left Out?

No, it’s not safe to eat chicken that’s been left out for longer than 2 hours, even if it’s winter. Unless your kitchen is below 40°F (refrigeration temps), that chicken is unsafe to eat. If your kitchen is that cold, you’ve got bigger problems than what to do with leftover chicken.

Chicken Marsala in a Cast Iron Skillet

How Can You Identify Spoiled Chicken?

The most common signs of chicken that’s gone bad are:

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

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 it if seems alright? Put that bird down! Don’t eat it.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that harmful bacteria don’t always leave telltale signs. The chicken might not look or smell bad. It can still make you very sick.

If notice any signs of spoiled meat or rotten chicken, throw away the meat.

How to Safely Store Leftovers?

I would advise you to put the chicken in the fridge before it sits out for too long. Cooked chicken can be stored in the fridge for 3 to 4 days.

If you aren’t planning on eating the chicken in the next few days, you should freeze it. Cooked chicken that’s frozen stays good indefinitely, but you should eat it within 4 months for the best taste.

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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.

You might get very sick if you cook and eat raw chicken that has been left out. Don’t get chicken-sick. Don’t try cooking and eating raw chicken that’s been left out overnight.

How to Store Raw Chicken?

Once you bring the chicken home from the store, place it in the refrigerator immediately. Make sure that it is tightly wrapped in a plastic bag or in a sealed container.

I like to place chicken in my bottom drawer. This reduces the chance of any juices or liquids leaking onto other foods in case the package isn’t sealed properly. In turn, you reduce the risk of contamination.

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

Fresh Raw Chicken

How Long Can You Freeze Chicken For?

Even though you can safely store chicken in the freezer indefinitely, the way you package it will play a role in how long it will retain its taste and other physical attributes. If you’re using a resealable baggie, 4 months is probably the longest I’d store chicken.

If you have a vacuum sealer, the chicken will be good for 2 to 3 years

Can You Let Frozen Chicken Sit Out Overnight?

No, frozen chicken can’t sit out overnight, either. Some people try 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 a difference. Don’t try to thaw chicken overnight at room temperature. 

How to Safely Defrost Chicken

The best way to thaw chicken is in your refrigerator. It guarantees an even thaw. To defrost in the fridge, place the chicken in a dish or bowl and stick it in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the bird, this can take up to 1 to 2 days. Figure 5 hours per pound of chicken.

Pressed for time? Then, seal the chicken in a zip lock bag and submerge it in cold water in your sink. Use a plug to stop the water from draining. And, yes, the water must be cold. Remember, bacteria grow far more rapidly in a warmer environment. Add ice every half hour or so to keep the water cold. 

If you use the cold water method, a 3 to 4-pound chicken should defrost in 2 to 3 hours. 1 pound of chicken should defrost in under an hour. Chicken defrosted in cold water should be cooked immediately.

Really don’t have much time to spare? Then you can use the defrost function of your microwave to thaw the chicken. I’m not going to lie, this isn’t my favorite method. Microwaves cook food unevenly, so some spots may cook while others are still frozen solid. This is why I avoid defrosting meat in the microwave.

If you do choose this method, make sure to cook the chicken immediately 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 reheat the meat on the stovetop or in the oven once it is more or less done thawing.

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What Would Happen If You Ate Food Left Out Overnight?

The most common side effects of food poisoning are mild vomiting or diarrhea. The symptoms generally resolve on their own after a few days. This is why some may throw caution to the wind and eat food that has been left out. Don’t do it, though.

Food poisoning can become quite serious. Older adults, children, and individuals with a compromised immune system are more likely to experience more severe symptoms. Other symptoms include fever, achiness, cramps, and lack of appetite.

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.

Wrapping It Up

This guide covers everything you need to know about how long chicken can sit out and how to store it safely. Keep yourself and your family safe! Don’t eat chicken that’s been sitting out for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour if it’s hotter than 90°F).

Store your chicken in the fridge for 3 to 4 days, or in the freezer if you won’t consume it within that time. And defrost chicken smartly, either in the fridge or by using cold water. A microwave will do the trick, but it’s far from ideal. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks so much for reading!

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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