Cooked chicken may not last sitting out as long as you think.
cooked chicken over a clock on a designed background
Credit: Getty Images

It's easy to lose track of time when you're hosting a party, have other chores to do or are just enjoying a Sunday night dinner with your family. But cooked chicken, like chicken kabobs and grilled chicken, that you've left sitting out may not last as long as you may have hoped. If you're wondering about how long cooked chicken can sit out and whether you can safely enjoy it later, read on to find out the exact time frame and what you can do to keep cooked chicken safe to eat.

How long can cooked chicken sit out?

Unless the cooked chicken is kept warm, above 140°F, the general rule of thumb for cooked chicken is that it should not sit out on your kitchen table or buffet for more than two hours. Any cooked chicken left at room temperature for more than two hours should probably be thrown out.

The same applies to cooked chicken enjoyed outdoors, like at a picnic or barbecue. But when the indoor or outside temperatures are above 90°F (32.2°C), the cooked chicken is unsafe to eat after one hour.

Why two hours? You may be surprised to learn that illness-causing bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli, commonly found in poultry, multiply quickly between 40°F and 140°F (4°C and 60°C; aka the Danger Zone). In fact, the number of bacteria can double every 20 minutes, according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. In other words, millions of bacteria may already be present when the cooked chicken has been sitting out for hours.

Does it matter if the chicken is covered or uncovered?

Were you told that as long as the cooked chicken is covered, it is safe to eat? You have been misinformed.

Leaving cooked chicken out for more than two hours, whether it is covered or not, is not safe. There may be enough bacteria present to give you food poisoning.

Does barbecue sauce or a marinade help preserve the chicken?

Unfortunately, because bacteria grow rapidly within the Danger Zone between 40°F and 140°F, it does not matter whether the chicken has been covered in sauces or marinated. Neither method prevents the chicken from getting contaminated by the bacteria.

You may think that you can tell whether the cooked chicken is still good to eat by looking for signs of spoilage. Whether the cooked chicken has been sitting out for a few hours or overnight, you cannot tell it is safe to eat by its appearance, taste, smell and texture. The two-hour rule still stands; do not attempt to taste the chicken, as this may increase your risk for food poisoning.

What if I reheat the chicken?

Reheating cooked chicken left out for more than two hours (or more than one hour at temperatures above 90°F) does not make it safe to consume. There may still be bacteria present, and even if reheating destroys them, the heat may not kill all bacteria and the toxins produced, making the poultry unsafe to eat and putting you at risk of food poisoning.

Your best bet? Toss out that cooked chicken—better safe than sorry.

What happens if I eat chicken that's been out a while?

Eating chicken that's been sitting out for some time is risky as it may lead to food poisoning. Some unpleasant symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. See a doctor if any of these symptoms persist for more than 12 to 24 hours.

How to store cooked chicken

To store cooked chicken, make sure that it does not sit out at room temperature for more than two hours or more than one hour in temperatures above 90°F. Ensure it is cooled to room temperature within two hours before stowing it in the refrigerator or freezer.

Cooling off your cooked chicken keeps your other foods in the fridge and freezer safe. Allowing your cooked chicken to cool in the refrigerator can cause the temperature inside the fridge and freezer to rise, putting your other foods in the refrigerator and freezer at risk.

So, after your cooked chicken is cooled, and within two hours or less, place it in an airtight container, or wrap it with heavy-duty, food-safe plastic wrap, to retain the cooked chicken's quality. You may also want to date the container to remind you when you stored it. Cooked chicken can last for three to four days in the fridge and two to six months in the freezer, according to the consumer food safety app,

Where you place your cooked chicken in the fridge also matters. You want to keep it away from your raw chicken, ideally placing the raw and cooked chicken in different locations in the fridge to avoid cross-contamination. For example, put the cooked chicken on the upper shelves while stowing the raw chicken on the bottom shelf.

Bottom line

Taking a few extra steps to safely cool and store your cooked chicken allows you to enjoy it for a few additional days. Never leave your cooked chicken out for more than two hours before storing it (or for more than one hour in temperatures above 90°F). Leftover chicken that is adequately stored in the refrigerator and freezer is perfect for soups, salads, sandwiches and more. Check out our collection of recipes for creative ways to enjoy your delicious cooked chicken.