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The Complete Guide to Buying and Storing Chicken

When it comes to handling raw or leftover cooked chicken, food safety knowledge is a must. Read our tips for proper storage, defrosting and reheating best practices, and how to buy the freshest chicken at the market.

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Chicken has earned its spot as one of America's most popular proteins, thanks to its incredible versatility in cooking, mild, non-controversial flavor, broad availability, generally low cost, and many health benefits. The list goes on of beloved chicken dishes you are likely to find on restaurant menus, at potlucks, wedding buffets, and dinner parties, and it's also a go-to ingredient for the busy weeknight chef looking to solve the nightly dinner dilemma. We've all seen our fair share of chicken pot pie, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, chicken caesar salad, and chicken noodle soup.

Considering the popularity of this all-star protein, it's critical to learn the right and wrong ways to handle it. Whether you’re new to cooking chicken or you’ve been around the chicken coop before, you’ll want to beef up — or should we say poultry up — your food safety knowledge. While chicken is delicious, food poisoning is not, and the information below can help ensure you know when it’s time to cook, freeze, or toss your chicken.


Jump ahead to:

Buying chicken >>

Consuming fresh vs. spoiled chicken >>

Handling room temperature chicken safely >>

Storing chicken in the fridge >>

Storing chicken in the freezer >>

Defrosting/thawing frozen chicken >>

Reheating chicken >>


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Buying chicken 

Wondering what it means to buy organic, or how to tell if a package of drumsticks is fresh before you buy it? Follow these tips for buying chicken.

Buying chicken at the grocery store; photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

How to buy fresh chicken

When shopping for fresh chicken, the meat should have a pinkish hue and should spring back when gently pressed. Avoid chicken that looks discolored or gray, or feels too stiff when pressed. Of course, always check the “best by” date to ensure you are not buying an expired package of chicken, and also take into account when you plan to cook the chicken. If the “best by” date is the day of purchase, you’ll need to cook or freeze the chicken that day.

If you are a fan of crispy skins, double-check that the package of chicken you are purchasing has sufficient skin to cover the meat. Sometimes chicken is packaged skin-side down, so look for packages where you can easily see the quantity of skin included.


How much does chicken cost?

According to the USDA, in 2021, boneless skinless chicken breast cost an average of $2.94 per pound. Meanwhile, drumsticks averaged $1.04 per pound, thighs averaged $1.02 per pound, breast tenders averaged $3.62 per pound, and split bone-in chicken breast averaged $1.32 per pound. 


Organic vs. non-organic chicken

The USDA has a variety of standards that must be met before chicken can be labeled organic. For example, the chicken must be fed 100% certified organic feed and be antibiotic-free. Organic chickens must also be given year-round access to the outdoors. It can be expensive and difficult for poultry farmers to earn the organic certification, and so that extra cost is passed along to the customer; you’ll notice that organic chicken costs more than non-organic chicken at the grocery store.


How to buy chicken at a grocery store

You can purchase chicken by weight, usually in pounds, or by number of pieces. Chicken comes refrigerated, frozen, whole, or cut-up. It is also available boneless and bone-in. It’s also available both organic, and non-organic — organic will always cost more because of the pricey process farmers go through to earn an organic certification. Pay close attention to the recipe you are going to be making, as it will likely indicate the type and quantity of chicken needed.


How to buy frozen chicken

When purchasing frozen chicken, you’ll be able to choose from whole or cut-up, boneless or bone-in. Since you are not able to check the springiness of chicken meat for freshness when it is frozen, you will need to rely on “best buy” dates and the reputation and farming practices of the brand name. Also be sure the chicken is completely frozen before purchasing. It is not safe to consume if it has partially thawed while sitting in the grocery store’s case. 



Consuming fresh vs. spoiled chicken

Learn the indicators for identifying fresh and spoiled chicken. Food poisoning is often preventable if you know what to look for.

Pressing a finger into raw chicken to check for freshness; photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

How do I know chicken is fresh?

There are a few ways to check that a package of chicken is fresh. First, as a visual cue, the chicken’s flesh should have a pinkish hue. Always avoid dull gray-colored chicken. You can also use your finger to test the raw chicken’s freshness. Gently press into the plumpest part of the meat, and it should spring back. If it leaves a finger mark and doesn’t feel springy, the chicken should not be cooked or consumed. Always check the dates on the package, as well. An expired package of chicken may accidentally have been left out in a grocery store case.


Can you eat chicken a day out of date?

It is not recommended to eat chicken a day out of date. Adhering to the USDA’s guidelines will help ensure you do not consume harmful bacteria.


What happens if you eat old chicken?

When you eat old chicken, you are at risk of consuming harmful bacteria and contracting a foodborne illness, often referred to as food poisoning. Signs of food poisoning usually start showing up within 2 days of consumption, and might include a high fever, chills, nausea, diarrhea, and more.



Handling room temperature chicken safely

Serving chicken at a buffet? Find out how to keep your chicken dish safe to consume while it’s out on display, and know when it’s time to wrap it up or toss it.

Chicken served in a chafing dish at a buffet

How long can chicken sit out?

Raw chicken can safely sit out for up to two hours. Once two hours have passed, the chicken needs to be stored in the fridge or freezer, or cooked. You should not consume any chicken that has been left out longer than two hours.

According to the USDA, cooked chicken can safely sit out for up to two hours at room temperature. However, if the cooked chicken is left out in a space that is 90° F or higher, it should be stored in the fridge or freezer after one hour. To prevent cooked chicken dishes from spoiling too fast, hot chicken dishes should be kept hot at 140° F or warmer to prevent bacterial growth, and cold chicken dishes should be kept cold at 40° F or below. When serving food at a buffet, the USDA recommends placing hot chicken dishes in chafing dishes, warming trays, and slow cookers, and recommends placing cold chicken dishes in trays set over bowls of ice.


How long can cooked chicken sit out?

Cooked chicken can safely sit out for up to 2 hours. After that, it must be well wrapped and frozen, returned to the fridge, eaten, or tossed.



Storing chicken in the fridge

Extend the shelf life of your chicken by storing it in the fridge. But keep in mind that raw chicken and cooked chicken are not treated the same way.

Storing chicken properly in the fridge; photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

How long is chicken good for? 

Raw chicken will last in the fridge for 1-2 days, at which point you will need to cook the chicken or toss it. Cooked chicken can be kept slightly longer in the fridge, approximately 3-4 days. These dates are only to be used as estimations; you will need to check your specific chicken for spoilage. If the color, texture, or smell seems off, do not risk getting food poisoning. 


How long is raw chicken good for in the fridge?

Raw chicken is good for 1-2 days in the fridge.


How to store chicken in fridge

To store raw chicken in the fridge, wrap each piece individually in plastic wrap, and then place the wrapped pieces in a zip-top storage bag. In case of accidental leakage, it’s best to keep the bag on the lowest shelf of the fridge so raw chicken juices can’t spill on other food. Alternatively, you can store raw chicken in its original packaging in the fridge, but be sure to place the package inside another bag to prevent cross-contamination.

To store cooked chicken in the fridge, place all pieces together in a zip-top bag or airtight container. Glass or plastic storage will work fine.


How long is chicken good for in the fridge?

Raw chicken is good for 1-2 days in the fridge, whereas cooked chicken is good for 3-4 days in the fridge.


How long is cooked chicken good in the fridge?

Cooked chicken is good for 3-4 days when properly stored in the fridge.



Storing chicken in the freezer

If you wrap up your chicken properly, it can keep in the freezer for a long time! Get freezer-friendly with these handy tips.  

Storing chicken properly in the freezer; photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Can you freeze cooked chicken?

Yes, you can freeze cooked chicken. In fact, freezing cooked chicken is a wonderful way to stock protein for quick meals in the future. To freeze cooked chicken, first wrap in plastic wrap, then place in a zip-top storage bag to prevent freezer burn. 


What is the best way to freeze chicken?

The best way to freeze chicken is to create an airtight seal and double wrap it. You can keep the chicken in the original packaging, but place it in a zip-top storage bag to prevent freezer burn. Or, you can take the chicken out of the original packaging to repackage in your preferred sizes. If you do remove the chicken from the original packaging, rewrap each individual piece in plastic wrap tightly, and then place in zip-top storage bags. Always label the freezer bags so you can keep track of how old they are.


How long can you store chicken in the freezer?

From a safety perspective, you can store chicken in the freezer indefinitely. But from a quality perspective, chicken will start to lose its optimal taste and texture within the first year. Raw chicken pieces are best within 9 months of freezing. A whole raw chicken is best within one year of freezing. Cooked chicken has a shorter shelf life and should be eaten within 6 months of freezing.


Can you freeze fresh chicken from the grocery store?

Yes, you can freeze fresh chicken from the grocery store. Be sure to wrap each piece in plastic wrap tightly and place in a zip-top freezer bag to prevent freezer burn. Label the bag with the date.


Can you freeze raw chicken?

Yes, you can freeze raw chicken, and this is a great way to prevent waste and keep protein handy in your freezer. Always double wrap chicken to prevent freezer burn, as well as leakage. Store in the deepest, coldest part of your freezer.


Does freezing chicken ruin it/Is it bad to freeze chicken?

Freezing chicken does not ruin the chicken if it is used within a certain period of time. As a best practice, use individually wrapped pieces of chicken within 9 months of freezing, use a whole chicken within 1 year of freezing, and use cooked chicken within 6 months of freezing.


Can chicken be refrozen?

Yes, according to the USDA, cooked chicken can be refrozen safely if it was heated to 165° F. However, raw chicken that has already been defrosted in the microwave or by the cold-water method should be cooked before it can safely go back in the freezer.


Can you freeze cooked chicken?

Yes, you can freeze cooked chicken by wrapping the chicken tightly in plastic wrap and placing in zip-top storage bags. The chicken will begin to lose its ideal texture and flavor after about 6 months in the freezer, though it will remain safe to eat as long as it is stored properly in the freezer.


Can you cook frozen chicken?

Yes. According to the USDA’s guidelines for “Safe Thawing” of poultry, frozen chicken can be used direct from freezer if you cook it in the oven or on the stovetop. However, frozen chicken should not be used direct from a frozen state in the microwave or slow cooker; you should always thaw frozen chicken before cooking it in the microwave or slow cooker.



Defrosting/thawing frozen chicken

There is a right and a wrong way to thaw frozen chicken. Learn how to do it safely.

Defrosting frozen chicken in a baking dish covered with cold water; photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

How to defrost chicken overnight

The best way to defrost chicken overnight is to place the frozen chicken, still in its packaging, in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the chicken, it may take 1-2 days or more to thaw. If it is still too frozen to use, you can speed up the process by completely submerging the package in a deep baking dish filled with cold water and setting the dish on the counter. The water should be changed out every 30 minutes with new cold water to ensure the chicken thaws safely. This method usually thaws the chicken within 3 hours. Never leave frozen chicken out on the counter to thaw at room temperature. 


How to defrost chicken fast

The best way to defrost chicken fast is to put the package of chicken in a deep baking dish and cover completely with cold water. Leave the dish out on the counter and change out the water every 30 minutes with new cold water. This method should take 2-3 hours. Note: You should never thaw frozen chicken in warm or hot water.

Frozen chicken can also be defrosted quickly in the microwave, though this method will likely heat some parts of the chicken faster than other parts, affecting the ultimate texture of the poultry.


How long is thawed chicken good for vacuum sealed?

The USDA does not recommend keeping thawed, vacuum-sealed chicken any longer than thawed non-vacuum-sealed chicken. In other words, the official guidance is to keep raw chicken in the fridge no longer than 2 days before tossing, cooking, or freezing. Having said that, some meat experts offer independent, and more optimistic opinions on the subject of vacuum sealed meat. For example, Chicago Steak Company’s Steak University online resource shares that thawed, vacuum-sealed meats should be “unsealed and cooked within 10 days.” 


How long is chicken good for after thawing?

Once chicken is thawed, the same guidelines apply as if the chicken were fresh: 1-2 days in the fridge for raw, or 3-4 days in the fridge for cooked.


How to defrost chicken in the microwave

To defrost chicken in the microwave, first remove the chicken from its packaging and place it in a microwave-safe dish. Cover loosely to prevent splatters. Select the defrost setting on your microwave, or set it to 20-30% power, and heat for 2 minutes at a time. Check the chicken now and then for even thawing, flipping the meat as needed. According to Whirlpool's guide to microwave defrosting, you can expect defrosting to require 8-10 minutes per pound of chicken.



Reheating chicken

With these tips, your leftover chicken will taste as good as the night it was made!

Reheating chicken in the microwave; photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

How do you reheat chicken in the microwave?

The best way to reheat chicken in the microwave is to cut it into smaller pieces first, then place in a microwave-safe dish, and cover with a damp paper towel. Cutting the chicken into smaller pieces first allows the chicken to reheat faster, lowering the risk of drying out already cooked chicken. The damp paper towel similarly helps to ensure the chicken remains moist while it’s being reheated. Cook in 1-minute increments, checking the meat and flipping the pieces over as necessary for even heating without overheating. Nobody likes rubbery chicken!


How do you reheat chicken in the oven?

To reheat chicken in the oven, preheat the oven to 350° F. While the oven is preheating, remove the chicken from the fridge to take some of the chill off. When the oven has reached temperature, place the chicken in an oven-safe baking dish, add a couple of tablespoons of water or chicken broth to the bottom of the dish and cover with an oven-safe lid or foil that creates a tight seal. Adding liquid to the dish and covering the chicken during reheating helps to maintain moisture. Cook covered until an instant read meat thermometer reaches 165° F. This method does not yield a crispy top, but not to worry, simply remove the lid or foil and switch to the broiler setting for a few minutes. Your chicken will taste like you just made it! 


How to reheat fried chicken?

The best way to reheat fried chicken is with an air fryer because it results in a perfectly crispy outside without being refried in a pot of oil. First preheat the air fryer, then place the chicken in the air fryer basket in a single layer and cook for a few minutes, until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165° F. 

If you do not own an air fryer, don’t fret. You can still achieve a deliciously crispy crunchy outer layer on your leftover fried chicken by using a combination of the oven and broiler. First reheat the chicken, covered, in the oven, and then continue cooking a few minutes more under the broiler, turning once to allow both sides to get crispy.



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