How Long Can Cooked Chicken Be Left Out At Room Temperature?

Whether you're making the crispiest oven roasted chicken or trying out chef Andrew Zimmern's zesty fried chicken recipe, chicken can feed a crowd at a party or cookout, and it's even easier to serve if you leave it out on a tray for guests to help themselves. However, if you plan to you leave your cooked poultry at room temperature — or perhaps you're even transporting it to another place — you should know how long it can sit out of the fridge before it becomes a hotbed for bacteria. Unfortunately, a short amount of time can make the difference between a delicious, safe-to-eat meal and a nasty bout of food poisoning.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooked poultry can sit at room temperature for no longer than two hours — and in hot weather above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it can only sit out for an hour at most. Leaving chicken out for any longer will allow harmful pathogens to grow to dangerous levels, so you'll want to store any leftovers in the fridge before they hit that time limit.

Keep cooked chicken warm to prolong its shelf life

While storing cooked chicken before two hours are up is the best way to avoid getting sick, this guideline can be hard to follow when you're distracted at a party or potluck. If you want some wiggle room to avoid leaving chicken out for too long, or you simply don't want to put it away too soon, consider using a food warmer to display your cooked chicken.

Typically used for catering events and buffet restaurants, food warmers — such as buffet servers, chafing dishes, and electric warming trays — are all types of appliances that keep foods warm over an extended period of time. Provided that your particular appliance can keep a steady temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, it can be an excellent tool at mitigating microbial growth. Just remember that these appliances could potentially dry out your cooked chicken over an extended period of time, so exercise caution when displaying your food in a warming tray. A little over 2 or 3 hours might be fine, but any longer than that, and your leftovers might be so dry that you don't really want them, anyway.

No, covering chicken in sauce does not prevent spoiling

Many people claim that you can douse cooked chicken in a marinade or slather it with sauce to prevent it from going bad. While this is well-meaning advice, you never want to leave perishable foods out for over two hours before putting them back in storage. Unless you're using high heat or freezing cold temperatures to halt the growth of pathogens, no amount of dressing will keep your cooked chicken from going bad at room temp. Reheating will not fix this issue, either, as the toxins released by harmful germs can withstand the heat and remain on the surface of your food.

Cold storage before the two-hour mark is the single best way to keep your leftovers out of the trash can. When putting your cooked chicken back in the fridge, make sure to keep it sealed in an airtight vessels and away from any raw meat to avoid cross-contamination. When you're ready to enjoy your chicken again, know that the oven is the best way to reheat it, so fire it up and enjoy your (illness-free) leftovers.

Does covering chicken prevent it from going bad?

Unfortunately, covering chicken does not prevent it from spoiling at room temperature. While a closed container may be effective at keeping out external pathogens, it won't stop the microbes already on or within the meat from continuing to multiply. In fact, bacteria present in your tray, cling wrap, or aluminum foil could actually reintroduce microbes into your chicken if you're not careful — which means you still need to transfer all cooked chicken to the fridge within two hours of being left out at room temperature, whether covered or not.

This doesn't mean there are no benefits to covering cooked chicken at room temperature. To keep meat warm before serving, many home cooks like to tent it with some aluminum foil. This small but crucial step traps the heat of the cooked chicken as it rests, helping it to stay warm and juicy before it goes on the plate. While covering might not be useful in terms of room temperature food safety, it certainly can make your protein taste better!

What happens if you eat chicken that's been left out?

Consuming chicken that has been left at room temperature for over two hours can pose a risk of food poisoning. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people with this ailment experience a combination of cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting. Depending on the harmful microbe ingested, symptoms can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three weeks after exposure to manifest — although most cases begin within four hours.

In rare cases, food poisoning can cause severe symptoms such as bloody stools, dehydration, excessive vomiting, high fevers, and prolonged diarrhea. The CDC recommends visiting your doctor if you experience these ailments, as they could be life-threatening, or cause long-term health complications.

While it's not certain that you'll contract food poisoning every time you eat food left at room temperature for over two hours, it's not worth the risk. Keep a close eye on how long your cooked chicken has sat out on display, store it promptly when visitors are finished, and if you're unsure of how long it's been out, don't hesitate to throw any leftovers out.