Chicken is perishable no matter how you cook it and, like all perishables, storage dictates how long it remains safe to eat. If you make it a point to put cooked chicken leftovers in the refrigerator with hopes of eating them at another time, keep in mind that refrigeration has its limitations. Knowing how long the cooked chicken keeps after you pop it in the fridge helps to ensure that you and your loved ones stay healthy.
Refrigerate any leftover chicken soon after your meal is over. Cooked chicken left on the counter for two hours or more -- one hour in temperatures of 90 degree Fahrenheit -- is no longer safe to eat. Ideal temperatures for storing cooked chicken are 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, making the refrigerator the obvious storing vessel. Even under these conditions, the cooked chicken will only keep up to four days before spoiling.
A refrigerator temperature above 40 degrees F puts any food stored inside in danger of spoiling. Checking the temperature of your refrigerator periodically ensures that it is working as it should to keep your cooked chicken and other perishables safe to eat. If your refrigerator does not have a thermometer, or if you suspect that the thermometer is not displaying the correct temperature, an appliance thermometer set in the back of the refrigerator can put your mind at ease.
Although the cooking process kills harmful bacteria, the threat of new bacterial growth becomes a threat when the chicken cools. The bacteria in cooked chicken are responsible for serious foodborne illnesses if consumed past the recommended storage times. Refrigeration does not kill bacteria, but it does slow the growth enough to keep the cooked chicken safe to eat for the four-day storage. After the four days, bacterial growth is dangerously high, rendering the chicken unsuitable for consumption.
Store cooked chicken leftovers in the freezer if you don’t think you will eat them within four days. Store the cooked chicken in freezer bags, storage containers or freezer wrap before freezing. Freezing keeps the cooked chicken safe to eat for an indefinite amount of time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does point out that although bacteria is not an issue during this time, quality may be -- with the taste and texture of the cooked chicken diminishing within two to six months.
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