How Can I Tell If My Chicken's Gone Bad?

You forgot how long it's been in the fridge and now you're this safe to eat?

February 16, 2022
Photo by Bette Blau

“When did we have this chicken?” you shout to your roommate or partner as you crouch in a deep squat in front of the refrigerator. You look over your shoulder, tilt your head, wait for an answer, and hear nothing. You hold the container of cooked chicken up in the light, peering around all four corners, before bringing it back to your heart’s center, opening the lid, and giving it a sniff. It doesn’t necessarily smell bad, but something is a little off.

“Is it safe to eat this for lunch?” you wonder to yourself, hoping to avoid having to cook something new on an already busy workday. “What if I shred it and toss it with mayo and celery for a quick chicken salad? Is that okay? What if I shred it and cook it in chicken broth with veggies and egg noodles for a speedy soup?”

As you ponder life’s most pressing question—how long does cooked chicken actually last in the fridge?—let’s take a deeper look at the facts.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cooked chicken, whether in its whole form (like a rotisserie chicken) or pieces, like chicken breast or thighs, will last for three to four days in the refrigerator, or four to six months in the freezer; the longer end is if you’re freezing a chicken dish like chicken soup or coq au vin, rather than chicken pieces. After that period, it’s safe to say that the chicken has probably gone bad and bacteria may start to grow.

Other than time, here are some obvious signs that it’s no longer safe to eat cooked chicken: if it has a slimy texture, obvious pungent odor, or you remember that the chicken has been stored in the fridge for more than a week.

It’s a question our own community has spent time discussing at length:

Community member LeBec F. recommends “keeping meats and fish and poultry in the rear left corner of your fridge. [It] has a remarkable impact on lengthening their lives, both pre- and post-cooking.” The back of your refrigerator is always the coldest and safest place for meat, dairy, and produce; this way, the products will be located farther away from the air flow caused by the refrigerator door opening and closing. Community member Chef Ono says, “Every time you take a dish up to pasteurization temperature, the clock is reset,” which means that if you make a new batch of chicken stock three days after you pre-cooked chicken, you gain a few extra days of consumption.

And to avoid ever again having to ask the question of, “when did we have this for dinner? Tuesday? Wednesday?” get in the habit of labeling all of your food containers. Just write the item and date it was cooked on a strip of painter’s tape or masking tape and stick it to the container like an industry pro to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from food poisoning.

Share your go-to food storage tips in the comments below!
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1 Comment

CliffG February 20, 2022
We have been through this question time and time again so now we have a small roll of tape and a pen. The container is dated. I have no problem with up-to-5-days but my wife gets nervous after 3. Chicken often picks up that "refrigerator taste" after a while so we don't stretch the storage time.