A lean protein that can easily adapt to countless recipes and flavor profiles, chicken is immensely popular in home kitchens for very good reason. But because chicken can carry several types of bacteria (like Salmonella and E. coli), storing it improperly may result in foodborne illnesses.
To help avoid that fate and to keep your chicken in the best possible condition (whether it's raw or cooked), we've asked a group of food safety experts to point out the six biggest mistakes home cooks make when storing chicken, along with the best ways to prevent those issues.
1. Letting raw chicken become too warm during the trip home from the grocery store.
To stop chicken from forming dangerous bacteria, it's crucial to store the raw meat at a cold temperature (40 degrees Fahrenheit or below). Of course, it's not possible to bring a fridge in the car with you when you head to the grocery store, but you should still make every effort to keep the chicken as cold as you can for the duration of your trip.
"One of the biggest mistakes that people can make is failing to properly cool chicken during a commute home. This isn't necessary for people with short commutes, but consumers in rural areas often have to drive over 30 minutes to the grocery store. I would recommend using a cooler to store chicken for any commute over 30 minutes to minimize bacterial growth," suggests medical reviewer DJ Mazzoni of Illuminate Labs.
2. Keeping raw chicken above or next to ready-to-eat foods in the fridge.
It's very important to store raw chicken in the refrigerator, but it's equally important to consider its specific location within your fridge.
"Don't store it in the refrigerator above or directly next to other raw foods or foods that are ready-to-eat. This is a concern because the raw chicken, or juices from the chicken, can accidentally drip onto other foods and transfer pathogens to them," warns Kimberly Baker, Ph.D, the director of the Clemson University Extension Food Systems and Safety Program Team. "If the contaminated food is not handled safely and cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (the minimum internal cooking temperature for chicken), then the person consuming that food could get sick with a foodborne illness."
Tightly wrapping the chicken in plastic and placing it on the bottom rack of your fridge will prevent drippage and contamination.
3. Not cooking raw chicken quickly enough.
Like many other proteins, raw chicken is perishable, so it's best to avoid letting it linger in your refrigerator for too long before cooking.
"It's important to use fresh raw chicken within one to two days of storing it in the refrigerator—at 40 degrees F or below. Any longer, and you could risk the chicken spoiling or becoming unsafe to eat. Fresh poultry can be kept in a freezer at ideal quality for up to nine months," says microbiologist and senior account manager Lisa Yakas of NSF International.
4. Wrapping large amounts of raw chicken together to freeze.
Speaking of the freezer, while freezing raw chicken is an effective way to extend its freshness, "wrapping a large quantity of raw chicken together to freeze isn't a great idea because it will be hard to take out a small quantity of chicken in the future," explains chef-instructor Christopher Arturo of The Institute of Culinary Education.
Instead, Arturo advises "freezing chicken in small bunches so you can pull out only what you need. Plus, the smaller and flatter the wrapped chicken is, the faster it will freeze."
5. Leaving cooked chicken on the counter for too long.
Leftover cooked chicken is also susceptible to breeding bacteria, so "don't leave cooked chicken on the countertop too long after cooking it before putting it in the fridge. As it sits on your countertop [at a warm temperature], it creates a perfect environment for bacteria to start growing again, so it's important to get it back in the fridge before too much bacterial growth takes place," says food scientist Caitlin Clark, M.S., a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University. "A good rule of thumb is that it shouldn't sit out for more than two hours before being refrigerated."
6. Keeping cooked chicken in the fridge for too many days.
Just as raw chicken shouldn't linger in the refrigerator for more than a couple of days, it's also wise to limit the amount of time that you leave cooked chicken in there before consumption.
"When you move leftovers into the refrigerator, leave them loosely covered for the first couple of hours so that the cold air can chill them quickly. Then cover them tightly," says Chris Boyles, the Vice President of Food Safety for Steritech. "Refrigerated leftover chicken should be consumed or discarded in three to four days. Otherwise, you can freeze it [in an airtight container] and keep it for three to four months."