Inexpensive and versatile, chicken is a mealtime staple in households across the world (including ours). Deep-fry it, drown it with cream sauce, stuff it with tomatoes and cheese, or roast it with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt and pepper—this bird has a knack for reinventing itself throughout the week. Honestly, we rarely give chicken a bad review because we rely on this trusty bird to satisfy our appetite on the regular. The exception to the rule is an obvious one: Poultry that has turned putrid. Fortunately, you don’t need a degree in food science to know how to tell if chicken is bad. By relying on your senses (that’s sight, smell and feel) and checking how long that pack of chicken thighs has been in the fridge, you can make sure that your poultry is safe to eat. Here are the four signs to look out for.
1. Check the date
The USDA recommends cooking raw chicken within one or two days after purchasing or after the “Sell-By” date. Meaning that if you bought those chicken breasts home on Monday and then forgot about them until the weekend, then it’s time to toss ‘em out. What about chicken that was previously frozen? Per the food safety experts, if those breasts were previously frozen, the one- to two-day rule still applies but only starts after the meat is fully defrosted. (FYI: Fridge thawing will take a minimum of 12 hours).
2. Look for changes in color
Fresh, raw chicken should have a pink, fleshy color. But as poultry starts to go bad, it will start to turn a greyish shade. If the color starts to look dull then it’s time to use up that chicken immediately and if it has a grey tint (even just a slight one), then it’s time to say bye-bye.
3. Smell the chicken
While raw chicken is never entirely odor-free, it shouldn’t have a potent smell. Poultry that has gone bad may have a sour or pungent odor. Give your chicken a whiff and if it smells even just slightly “off,” then play it safe by tossing it out.
4. Feel the poultry
Raw chicken has a glossy, slippery texture. But if the meat is sticky or has a thick coating, then that's another sign that it could have gone bad.
And the one thing not to do…
Per the USDA, you should never, ever taste foods to determine safety.
Still not sure if your chicken is safe to eat? Get more detailed guidance from the USDA's toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), available year-round on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.
How to Handle Chicken to Prevent Spoilage
Nothing can kill one’s appetite quite like the ungodly smell of a spoiled piece of chicken. Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple way to ensure your poultry never gets nasty—just store it in the refrigerator as soon as you get home from the store and consume or freeze it within two days, says the USDA. The freezer will keep chicken fresh indefinitely. That’s because at 0°F (aka the temperature your freezer should be operating at), neither spoilage nor pathogenic bacteria can multiply at all. Keep in mind, however, that the texture of your bird will be affected by those cooler temperatures which is why the USDA recommends using frozen poultry within four months for best quality, flavor and texture.
And here are some more food safety guidelines: When it comes to cooking your poultry, be sure to always cook it to an internal temperature of 165°F. Once your chicken is cooked properly, serve it immediately or promptly store leftovers in small portions in the refrigerator so they cool down quickly. Per the USDA, you don’t want your chicken to linger for longer than two hours in the ‘danger zone,’ i.e., between 40°F and 100°F.
And that’s it, friends—just follow this advice and you should have no trouble storing your chicken and trusting that it’s fresh and safe to eat.