To eat or not to eat? Let’s just say we’re glad you asked. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know why.
You accidentally left a package of raw chicken, sealed or opened, out on the counter overnight. It’s the next day now, and you’re wondering if it’s still safe to cook and, by consequence, eat.
To give you the long answer short: No, it’s not safe to cook and eat raw chicken that’s been left out overnight. If you do, you can end up with food poisoning.
If the raw chicken has sat out for so long, the only thing left to do is to double-wrap it in plastic bags and throw it in the trash. After that, you should sanitize the surfaces and utensils that came into contact with it (or its juices) and wash your hands with soapy water.
Pro tip: Garbage collection day a long way off? Put the double-wrapped chicken in the freezer (not the fridge) and throw it out when the time comes.
Why Raw Chicken Shouldn’t Sit Out
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s not uncommon for raw chicken to be contaminated with disease-causing Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella, and other bacteria.
Normally, this isn’t a problem.
All of the meat we eat is contaminated with some kind of pathogen that gets killed during cooking. But if you leave the meat out for too long, these pathogens will replicate and replicate until they grow to numbers so big that eating it can give you a foodborne illness.
Bacteria grow the fastest in the temperature range of 40°F to 140°F, explains an article on AskUSDA. Home cooks like you and I call this range “room temperature.” But food safety experts? They have a less flattering name for it. They call it “the danger zone.”
Wanna know why?
If you leave chicken in the danger zone—raw or cooked—the number of bacteria on it doubles every 20 minutes.
To put this into perspective, if you leave your chicken out on the counter for 8 hours, it’s going to have 1,000 times more bacteria than if you leave it out for only 2 hours. (Mhm, you read that right! We’re talking about a thousand times more pathogens.)
As American author Harold McGee writes in Keys to Good Cooking, “A few bad microbes in a food can quickly multiply into many thousands.” He says a few cells are “seldom enough to cause illness, but a few thousand can be plenty.”
I don’t care if you have a stomach made of steel or an immune system that can ward off anything nature throws its way. If you leave chicken out that long and you try to cook and eat it, there’s a 99.9% chance it won’t turn out well.
Won’t Cooking the Chicken Make It Safe to Eat?
“Wait a minute,” some of you may be thinking… “Isn’t the point of cooking meat to kill the bacteria in it?”
It is. And yes, cooking the chicken will kill the bacteria that it contains, no matter how many of them there are.
“There you go!” Some of you may quickly conclude, “that’s just the government imposing stupid rules on us again!”
And I don’t blame you. But it turns out that food safety is about more than just killing bacteria. What cooking the chicken won’t do is inactivate the deadly toxins that these bacteria have left in it.
Deadly. Toxins. In your food. DO NOT EAT.
But What If the Chicken Isn’t Gross?
Okay, okay, you get the picture.
But what if the chicken smells fine and, when you touch it, it doesn’t feel sticky?
I know I’m totally killing the party here with these Q&As, but the answer is still a clear and resounding “no.”
Spoilage bacteria, the germs that make your food gray, stinky, and gross, are not the same thing as pathogenic bacteria, the germs that can make you sick and downright kill you.
Like Sean Connery’s character in The Hunt for Red October and his ballistic missile submarine, pathogenic bacteria are stealthy. They don’t change the smell, taste, or texture of your food in any way. So if you leave a package of raw chicken out for too long, you have literally no way to determine if it’s still safe to eat or not.
The CDC estimates that 1 million Americans contract food poisoning each year from eating contaminated poultry.
So How Long Can Chicken Sit Out?
You got this far, which means that, by now, you’ve established two things.
First, you should throw away the chicken you accidentally left on the counter overnight. Second, you should read up on food safety before you kill yourself with deliciousness.
Let me help you with this by introducing you to the “two-hour rule.”
Per the USDA, food shouldn’t be left to sit out for more than 2 hours or it will no longer be edible. In the summer, when the outside temperatures are 90°F (32°C) and above, this time is reduced to only 1 hour.
Keep cold foods refrigerated or frozen at a temperature of less than 40°F (4.4°C) and hot foods hot at 140°F (60°C) and above. But never leave them in the danger zone for more than 1-2 hours lest you and the family fall down ill with food poisoning.