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Is It Safe to Eat Cold Chicken?

Cold chicken is delicious, as long as it has been cooked and stored properly. In fact, it’s been one of my favorite leftover foods for as long as I can remember. I like it both cold and heated up. I’ve seen cold chicken at the deli in the grocery store where I shop. In addition to having the traditional whole rotisserie chicken and pieces of bbq chicken, they often have fried chicken in the cold section.

fried chicken drumstick and plate of rotisserie chicken

When it comes to leftovers, cold chicken is often at the center of a food safety discussion. I’ve heard people say they love it. But others wouldn’t touch a piece of leftover cold chicken. Personally, I love cold chicken, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Whether it’s a piece of fried chicken from last night’s dinner or leftover chicken nuggets from a party, the safety of consuming cold chicken will probably always be a topic of debate. There are concerns ranging from food poisoning to the best ways to store and reheat chicken. Read on for some facts to understand the dos and don’ts of eating cold chicken.

This is all based on a combination of my personal experience and internet research. If you’re ever unsure about the safety of any food, don’t eat it. It’s better to be safe than have to deal with the consequences later.

Understanding the Basics of Cold Chicken

The main concern is bacterial growth. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims that raw chicken can harbor harmful bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. This can lead to food-borne illnesses. These bacteria thrive in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F, a temperature range where leaving chicken at room temperature can cause a significant increase in the number of bacteria.

I often cook extra chicken so I can enjoy it later. For example, these air fried chicken thighs are as good the next day as they are the first time around. I typically heat them for about a minute in the microwave. Then I transfer them to my air fryer to get the skin crispy again.

chicken thighs in an air fryer

Storing Chicken Safely

The best way to prevent bacterial growth is by storing chicken properly. After cooking, chicken should be stored in an airtight or sealed container and placed in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking. You can also use plastic wrap to completely cover the chicken.

This time limit ensures that the chicken doesn’t remain in the danger zone for an extended period. For leftovers, the USDA recommends consuming cooked chicken within 3-4 days when stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

You might be wondering about the safety of consuming chicken cold. The answer largely depends on how it was stored. Cold chicken, such as chicken salad, deli meats, or chicken wraps, is safe to eat as long as it has been kept refrigerated and not left out for more than two hours at room temperature. Consuming cold chicken the next day, provided it was refrigerated properly, is usually safe. I give it the quick sniff and taste test. If anything seems “off,” then I toss it.

bowl of chicken salad
Chicken Salad

The Risk of Food Poisoning from Cold Meat

There’s no denying the convenience of eating leftover cold chicken. However, there’s always a risk of food poisoning if the chicken wasn’t stored correctly or if it was left out at room temperature for too long. Telltale signs of spoiled cooked chicken include an acidic smell, changes in texture, or visible signs of spoilage such as mold. In severe cases, consuming spoiled chicken can lead to symptoms like stomach ache, vomiting, and bloody stools. This is especially the case in vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and people who have compromised immune systems.

Best Practices for Reheating Cold Chicken

When I want my leftover chicken warm or I’m not sure about the temperature it’s been stored at, reheating is the best option. The safest way to reheat chicken is by making sure it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, as measured by a food thermometer. This temperature is sufficient to kill any harmful bacteria that might have grown.

It’s also a good idea to cut the chicken into smaller pieces before reheating so that it heats evenly. Whether you’re reheating a whole roast chicken or just a chicken breast, using a microwave, oven, or stovetop are all good methods, as long as the chicken is heated thoroughly.

Creative Ways to Use Leftover Cold Chicken

Eating cold chicken doesn’t have to be a bland experience. There are numerous creative ways to incorporate it into your meals. From chicken wraps and salads to adding it to soups or making this tropical island chicken salad, the options are limitless. Not only does this prevent food waste, but it’s also a great way to maintain a healthy diet without spending too much time cooking.

island chicken salad on a bed of lettuce

I often use leftover chicken to make this delicious chicken and rice soup. It’s also good in chicken chili or in a chicken noodle casserole. These crispy fried chicken strips are delicious when cut into bite-size pieces and added to your favorite salad.

Bottom Line on Eating Cold Chicken

The bottom line is that eating cold chicken can be safe if it has been stored correctly and not left out at room temperature for too long. Always keep track of the amount of time cooked chicken spends outside the refrigerator and use a sealed container to limit bacterial growth. Incorporating leftover cold chicken into your meals can be a nutritious and time-saving option.

rotisserie chicken and fried chicken drumstick

However, always be aware of the signs of spoilage and prioritize safety by reheating chicken to the safe internal temperature if in doubt. If you follow these guidelines, you can enjoy your leftover chicken in different ways while minimizing the risk of food-borne illnesses.

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