When you have prepared a large chicken dinner, there are bound to be some leftovers. Rather than chucking these in the bin, you can put them in the fridge to enjoy at a later time.
However, chicken does not stay good indefinitely, even in the refrigerator. Spoiled chicken is dangerous to your health, so how many days is leftover chicken safe for consumption?
What You Should Know About Storing Chicken
When you have leftover chicken, you need to know a few handy facts in order to store chicken properly.
1. How many days can chicken be kept in the fridge?
There are two ways you can keep chicken that has been cooked in cold storage. You can either put it in the freezer or the refrigerator.
- In the refrigerator
Leftover chicken can only be stored in the fridge safely for a short amount of time in comparison to the freezer.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture recommends that casseroles containing chicken and pieces of chicken that have been cooked will stay good in the fridge for 3-4 days. Nuggets and patties will only last 1-2 days.
- In the freezer
Leftover chicken is good for much longer in the freezer.
The USDA says that casseroles are good for 4-6 months in the freezer, whereas nuggets and patties will last for 1-3 months. Plain or fried pieces of chicken can last for 4 months, and chicken in broth or gravy can last up to 6 months.
2. What kinds of bacteria can grow in leftover chicken?
When you store chicken that has been cooked incorrectly, there are different types of bacteria that can grow on it.
- Salmonella enteritidis
Salmonella is a serious bacterium that wreaks havoc on your insides. According to the Center for Disease Control, it takes 12-72 hours for gastric symptoms to show once you have ingested contaminated chicken.
You will experience severe diarrhea, headaches, and fever, and if your immune system is strong in the first place, you can shake off these symptoms in about 4-7 days. It is much more dangerous for anyone with a weakened immune system.
- Staphylococcus aureus
Staph is a very common pathogen in the environment. When you leave leftover chicken out at room temperature for too long, it will definitely breed bacteria.
As staph bacteria multiplies, it produces a toxin that causes significant illness. This enterotoxin causes vomiting, nausea, and abdominal cramps as well as diarrhea. Symptoms will be felt within 2 to 6 hours after consumption.
It usually takes a couple of days to get over such an illness, and you need to replace lost fluids and salts by rehydrating constantly.
- Campylobacter jejuni
This bacteria is a common cause of food poisoning. It normally enters the body when you eat chicken that hasn't been cooked properly.
Once inside the body, the bacteria will multiply along your intestinal wall and produce an enterotoxin. Symptoms generally take 3-5 days to show up after eating contaminated chicken. These symptoms include fever, severe cramping in the abdomen, and diarrhea.
3. How can you tell chicken has gone bad?
You do not have to fall sick after eating it to know that your leftover chicken is bad. You can look at it and know that something is off. Many times, the appearance of spoiled chicken is different, and it will often look grey and slimy.
You should also smell the chicken before eating. Spoiled chicken has a raunchy, sour smell. If you are not sure, do not try tasting the chicken to find out. Just throw it away, because it is not worth enduring the illness that can come from eating contaminated chicken.
How Do You Keep Leftover Chicken from Going Bad?
- Refrigerate chicken in time
Chicken should not be at room temperature any longer than 2 hours. Any longer than 2 hours gives the bacteria time to get in and proliferate.
You should, therefore, put the chicken in the fridge as quickly as possible to keep it safe.
- Store smaller pieces and use shallow containers
To ensure chicken cools quickly and freezes well, you should make smaller pieces. The containers the chicken is stored in should also be shallow to allow for faster cooling.
- Use clean and sealed containers
Clean containers are devoid of harmful bacteria, ensuring that you do not add additional sources of bacteria to uncontaminated chicken.
Sealing the containers also ensures that said pathogens do not get in even when the chicken is in the fridge.
- Keep cooked meat separate
When you are arranging the containers in the fridge, you should keep your cooked leftovers separate from the raw meat.
Raw meat contains live bacteria that will easily transfer to your leftovers and cause spoilage or food poisoning when you ingest it.
Take Home Message
If you have plenty of leftovers from dinner but don't want to discard them, you probably have one question on your mind, "How many days is leftover chicken safe for consumption?"
You can keep the chicken in your refrigerator where it will last around 3-5 days, or you can freeze it for months. However, take proper care when preparing your leftover chicken for cold storage. If you do it improperly, there are plenty of bacteria that will jump at the chance to make your dish their home.