You cooked more chicken than you and your family can eat in one sitting. But instead of storing it in the fridge, you let it sit on the table or accidentally left it out overnight. Now, you’re wondering: can you still eat it?
According to food safety experts, the answer is a resounding and definitive no.
In fact, from a food safety point of view, leaving cooked chicken out at room temperature for more than 2 hours is a clear recipe for disaster.
Disease-causing bacteria, called pathogenic bacteria, multiply the quickest in warm temperatures. If you leave cooked chicken out for too long, it can become overgrown with pathogenic bacteria and cause a potentially life-threatening case of food poisoning.
In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every year, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses. Certain groups, including adults aged 65 years and older, children younger than 5 years, pregnant women and their unborn babies, as well as individuals with a weakened immune system, are more at risk than others.
So if you left chicken out for too long, err on the side of caution and don’t eat it — even if it smells and tastes perfectly fine (we’ll get to the reasons why in a moment). While it’s never ideal to waste food, the potential risk of getting sick with food poisoning isn’t worth the gamble.
Why You Shouldn’t Leave Chicken Out
Bacteria are all around us: they can be found in the air we breathe, the soil beneath our feet, on our skin, and even within our bodies.
Some types of bacteria are beneficial to us; others are benign. But certain types of bacteria — the pathogens — can cause severe, life-threatening illness, especially when ingested in large quantities.
Bacteria need food, warmth, and moisture to survive and replicate.
Chicken is a rich source of protein and nitrogen with a high moisture content. According to the website of the US Department of Agriculture, chicken contains 69% when raw and 61% when cooked. As such, it provides an ideal environment for bacterial growth given the right temperature.
Bacteria proliferate the fastest at temperatures from 40°F (4.4°F) to 140°F (60°C). If cooked chicken is left out at a temperature within this range, the number of bacteria in it will double every 20 minutes. Within just an hour, a generally harmless 200 bacteria can turn into a potentially dangerous 1,600.
Leaving chicken out, in other words, is akin to creating a perfect breeding ground for disease-causing bacteria.
If the Chicken Seems Fine, Can You Eat It?
It’s a common myth that if chicken that’s been left out still smells and tastes okay, then it’s still safe to eat. However, this is far from the truth. Relying on our senses to determine the safety of the chicken is not a reliable method.
Just because the chicken seems fine doesn’t mean it’s free from harmful bacteria. In fact, the bacteria that can cause food spoilage and those that can make us ill are not always one and the same.
Spoilage bacteria, which make food slimy, give it an off odor, and cause it to taste bad, are generally harmless. Pathogenic bacteria — the type of bacteria that can cause illness — do not produce any noticeable changes in smell, flavor, or texture. They can only be detected through laboratory testing.
Leftover chicken can look, smell, and taste perfectly fine, and yet nevertheless be overgrown with pathogens. Since you have no way to determine the safety of leftover chicken with your senses, the only reliable controls you have are time and temperature.
Won’t Reheating the Chicken Make It Safe to Eat?
Reheating chicken that has been left out at room temperature for too long won’t necessarily make it safe to eat, even though it is true that 2 minutes of exposure to a temperature of 158°F (60°C) and 30 seconds of exposure to 167°F (65°C) are enough to kill most bacteria.
Firstly, some bacteria are capable of producing toxins that cannot be destroyed by heat. This means that even if the bacteria themselves are killed, the toxins they produce can still make you sick.
Secondly, certain bacteria can form heat-resistant spores that protect them from extreme conditions such as heat. For example, Clostridium perfringens form spores that can survive boiling. This makes it difficult to completely eliminate pathogenic bacteria even through reheating (or cooking it again).
To avoid foodborne illness, discard chicken that has been left out for too long rather than trying to salvage it through reheating.
If you’ve left chicken out for more than 2 hours, don’t eat it. Bacteria multiply the quickest at room temperature, and the bacteria that sicken us are undetectable by our senses. Even if the chicken seems and smells okay, there’s still a risk of contamination. Err on the side of caution to avoid food poisoning.