How long after cooking chicken can I put it in the fridge?

Is your leftover chicken still okay to eat? Here's what to know.

How long after cooking chicken can I put it in the fridge?

Do you have a black hole in the fridge? A vortex that hides leftovers and then makes them reappear just when you have doubts about how safe they are to eat?

If you eat a lot of chicken, then that vortex has probably claimed more than a few potential meals. It happens. Here’s the rule of thumb so you can play it safe.

When Is Chicken Still Safe to Eat?

According to the USDA, you should eat cooked chicken within 3 to 4 days. Pretty simple.

What if it’s been longer – say, 5 days? Then it’s up to you. There are pathogens that can grow on chicken that don’t have a taste or smell and won’t change the way the chicken looks. Use your best judgement.

As the adage goes: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

There are exceptions to this 3 to 4 day rule, including chicken salad (5 days), chicken hot dogs (2 weeks unopened, 1 week after opening), and packaged chicken lunch meat (2 weeks unopened, 3 to 5 days after opening), and deli chicken lunchmeat (3 to 5 days).

How Do I Know When Cooked Chicken Has Gone Bad?

Any change in the way it looks, tastes, or smells is suspect. Mold, of course, means pitch it. So does a slimy or slippery feel.

How to Use Up Cooked Chicken

Throwing leftovers away is a bummer. Here are some low-effort ways to avoid chucking what might be perfectly good food. The only key is getting around to it before it’s suspect.

  • Freeze it. Pop that chicken in the freezer before it gets to the borderline zone. According to the USDA, you can freeze cooked chicken for up to a year, depending on the item. We’d say use anything within a few months to prevent freezer burn. Freezer-burned food is safe to eat, but it doesn’t taste very good. You can always make a batch of chicken stock to clear out a cache of frozen chicken, particularly if you’re freezing bone-in chicken. 
  • Make chicken salad. And preferably eat it that day, or the day after.
  • Toss that chicken with some pasta for a quick dinner.
  • Tuck it into a quesadilla for an easy lunch.
  • Shred it and simmer it in a speedy soup.

Mariana Marasiou has been tucking into this tasty and hot conundrum, from listener Julie. She got in touch with avian infection and immunity scientist Paul Wigley...

Mariana - I reached out to Paul Wigley from the University of Liverpool, who studies food poisoning organisms from chickens, to help me answer Julie’s question.

Paul, what’s the official recommendation for storing food and leftovers?

Paul - As a rule of thumb, cooked food should be refrigerated within 2 hours and eaten within 2 days. Providing that the chicken is thoroughly cooked, it is no riskier to store in terms of food safety than any other meat.

Mariana - Hmm… looks like you’re having a bit of a sore throat. Maybe the next gene therapy should be for laryngitis… While Paul is off to suck a Strepsil, I’ll try to fill in for him.

This food safety tip applies to all cooked food, including takeaway food. This is because the bacteria that can cause food poisoning can form spores, which are resistant to cooking and can germinate to form new bacterial cells when the food is not chilled. While refrigeration doesn’t completely stop the bacteria from growing, it slows it down, which prolongs the freshness of the food, making it safe to eat for a couple more days.

But what about putting the cooked food in the fridge without cooling it down?

Putting very hot food in the fridge raises the temperature inside the fridge and makes it a bit less effective. But you should still aim to refrigerate food within 2 hours of cooking it, even if it’s still a bit warm.

To help food cool down faster, you can split it in smaller containers, and as soon as they’ve cooled to room temperature, they can then go in the fridge.

It's not as long as you would think. 

Published on March 17, 2021

If you've been eyeing that week-old chicken, wondering if it's still safe to eat, you've come to the right place. Eating cooked chicken that's past its prime is a recipe for (intestinal) disaster. Whether it's grilled, fried, baked, or any other form of cooked chicken, here's how long cooked chicken will last in the fridge. Plus, get tips on how to properly store it and how to tell when it's gone bad.

How Long Does Cooked Chicken Last?

According to the USDA, cooked chicken will last three to four days in the refrigerator, and two to three months in the freezer. Eating cooked chicken after this point can result in foodborne illness — even at refrigerated temperatures, bacteria can still grow.

This might leave you with the question: Can't you just zap it in the microwave? Because microwaves heat food from the outside in, and not the other way around, reheating week-old cooked chicken in the microwave will kill bacteria on the surface, but it won't eliminate toxins produced by the growing bacteria beneath the surface.

Here's the bottom line: If your chicken is on day five, it's not safe to eat anymore, even after reheating.

How to Store Cooked Chicken in the Refrigerator

Cooked chicken should be stored in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag and refrigerated within two hours of cooking. If kept at room temperature longer than two hours, chicken can reach what's known as the temperature danger zone, or the range between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F in which bacteria grows most rapidly.

Marty Baldwin/Meredith

How to Tell If Chicken Has Gone Bad

If you're not sure how long your chicken has been in the fridge, there's a few tell-tale signs it's past its prime:

  • Color: Chicken that has gone bad, whether cooked or raw, will begin to have a green/grayish hue.
  • Smell: The classic smell test can come in handy when you're checking your chicken for spoilage. Chicken will begin to have an ammonia-like, or just an overall "off" smell. Seasonings and marinades can mask these smells, so you can't always rely on smell alone.
  • Texture: A change in texture is another indicator of spoilage. Bad chicken will have a slimy film — a pretty strong deterrent to biting into that week-old chicken.

A word of caution: Never taste your chicken to determine whether or not it's gone bad. Doing so could result in a few hours spent hugging the toilet.

How to Freeze and Thaw Cooked Chicken

If you don't think you'll get to your chicken within three to four days, the best option is to freeze it. To freeze cooked chicken, transfer it to a freezer-safe container or zip-top bag, label with the date, and freeze for up to three months. Never freeze chicken that has been left out at room temperature for more than two hours, or stored in the fridge for more than four days.

To thaw, transfer the chicken in its storage container to the refrigerator and allow it to thaw overnight. You can also use the defrost setting on your microwave.


  • Chicken Parts 101: What to Do With Each Cut
  • How to Freeze the 10 Most Common Leftovers
  • Browse our entire collection of Chicken Recipes.

Can you put warm chicken in the fridge?

Food that has just been cooked or taken out of the oven to cool should be cooled as quickly as possible to prevent the growth of bacteria. Hot food cannot be put directly into the fridge after cooking. Putting hot food into a fridge may cause the fridge temperature to increase above 5 °C.

Can you put warm food into the fridge?

It is OK to store hot foods in the fridge. You do not have to wait for the foods to cool before you put them away. In fact, it's better to store them right away, while they're still hot, than to forget them and leave them sitting at room temperature too long.