Whether you've got chicken leftover from dinner or you're planning meals for the week, you need to know how to safely store the cooked poultry in the refrigerator to avoid foodborne illness. Proper packing and storage temperature will maximize the amount of time the cooked chicken remains fresh. Cooked chicken will generally stay safe to eat for three to four days, but some preparations should be refrigerated for just one to two days.
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Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. To prevent bacterial growth, chicken needs to be either kept at or below 40 degrees F or above 140 degrees. This standard holds for salads, fried chicken and casseroles as well as plain roasted or grilled chicken. To stay within the safe zone, you must refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours or just 1 hour if the temperature is 90 degrees F or hotter. If you're grilling, for example, your chicken needs to be cooled and in the fridge relatively quickly; there's no time for socializing and then putting away your leftovers. A chicken salad sits out in the heat for longer than an hour should be tossed immediately.
Cool It Down and Cut It Up
If you've just taken chicken or a chicken casserole out of the oven, it's OK to package it and set it directly into the refrigerator. Alternatively, cool cooked chicken by placing it into a bowl and resting it in an ice bath. To refrigerate a whole roast or rotisserie chicken, cut it into smaller pieces first and slice large breasts.
Pack It Up
Wrap cooked chicken in airtight packaging, such as zip-top bags or plastic wrap, or use a covered storage container. Use a container that's the right size for the leftovers you have; a container that's too large allows for an excess of circulating air, which drives up moisture and encourages bacterial growth. Fried chicken and chicken patties can be wrapped tightly in foil. Consider bringing these breaded items to room temperature before packing them, or the steam created by wrapping them when warm will make the crust soggy.
Plain grilled, roasted or baked chicken lasts three to four days when properly cooled and packed. Fried whole chicken pieces will also last this long, but it benefits from reheating in a warm oven, rather than a microwave, to encourage a crisp crust. A chicken casserole, when packaged into smaller serving containers, also has a refrigerator life of three to four days. Homemade chicken salad lasts about four days, sealed; deli versions may last up to five days once opened. Leftover chicken patties and nuggets should be consumed within one to two days. Aim to use up chicken pieces bathed in gravy, sauce or broth in one to two days as well. Ultimately, your nose and eyes are the determiners of whether cooked chicken has been stored properly. If the chicken appears discolored or has an "off" odor, discard it to be safe.