Americans consume 8 billion chickens a year, more than any other poultry. It’s a dinner-table favorite and a lunchbox staple. But because of its absorbent flesh and skin, chicken can harbor disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella. And through improper handling, cooking, and storing practices, the trusty chicken could become more dangerous than the feathered menaces of a Hitchcock film.
So how do we prevent this dinnertime staple from becoming a dinnertime nightmare? Healthline turned to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and CiCi Williamson, cookbook author and 26-year veteran of the government agency’s food-safety hotline, for answers.
How to Ensure Your Chicken Is Kitchen-Worthy
At the market, look for chicken that’s cold to the touch and free of broken bones, feathers, cuts, and discolorations. Make sure that packaging is sturdy and well sealed.
Wrap fresh chicken in the market’s disposable plastic bags to contain any bacteria-leaking juices. (If your meat department doesn’t have them, grab some from the produce aisle.) Keep the chicken separate from produce and other unprotected food items by placing it in the (unoccupied) child seat of your shopping cart or in the rack directly above the cart’s wheels.
At checkout, place chicken and other raw meats in separate bags, away from other foods. When you get home, discard disposable bags that contain any leakage, and make sure you wash your reusable bags if you notice any moisture or liquid.
How Long Can You Store a Frozen Bird?
Once you get home, refrigerate your chicken immediately or freeze the bird if you’re not going to cook it right away. Use refrigerated chicken within two days. If you plan to use it after that time, the USDA recommends freezing it in its packaging and even “overwrapping” it with foil or plastic wrap. If you're planning multiple meals, store the pieces in separate freezer bags.
“Just make sure you wrap the chicken tight. The main thing is to keep the cold from burning the food," Williamson explained. When chicken has "freezer burn," it loses much of its flavor and tenderness.
In general, frozen chicken lasts “forever,” Williamson said. “There’s no time when the [frozen] food will start to get dangerous, because bacteria cannot grow on food that is frozen. So people say, ‘Oh, well, this chart says you should only keep meat for three to four months.’ Well you don’t throw it out at that point, because it’s not dangerous. As long as you’ve kept it frozen solid, it’s safe.”
The USDA recommends three methods for thawing a frozen chicken: in the refrigerator (plan ahead, because this method can take up to three days); in a leak-proof container filled with cold water; or in a microwave oven. When using a microwave, Williamson says, “The thing to remember is that microwaves enter the food from the sides, so that area will thaw first. If you have packed chicken breasts or parts, the best thing is to break up the chicken parts as best you can and turn 180 degrees, or whatever will put the frozen parts to the outside of the dish."
It's also best not to defrost a chicken in its store packaging, but rather a microwave-safe plate.
Creating a Safe Cooking Environment
After we’ve thawed our bird, it’s time to cook it—safely.
If you've been handling raw chicken, don't reach for the olive oil bottle or salt and pepper shakers before you've washed your hands. “But it’s easy to assemble all your ingredients ahead of time,” said Willaimson. “A little preparation goes a long way toward food safety.” Before you handle the chicken, put all your other ingredients into little bowls that you can wash afterward.
Be mindful of what kind of cutting board you use when preparing chicken. Wooden boards are gentler on your knives, but their porous surface can make them harder to rid of bacteria.
“There could be bacteria lurking down in a deep cut that you can’t clean or sanitize," Williams said. Whether your chopping board is made of wood, plastic, bamboo, or some other material, she suggests that it be dishwasher safe, because the heat of the dishwasher will kill any bacteria the board contains.
How to Flip the Bird Without Getting into Trouble
Another big mistake people make, said Williamson, is using the same tongs or spatula to transfer meat before and after it's been cooked. To avoid cross-contamination, wash any implements and plates that have come into contact with raw chicken before using them again. Or have a second set of clean cooking implements and platters ready.
Whatever cooking method you use, the chicken must reach a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to make sure that all bacteria are destroyed.
How do we know our chicken is done? A good meat thermometer will do the trick. But how do you know that your thermometer is accurate? Williamson offers this advice: “Boil some water and see what reading you get—It should be 212 degrees, or put ice in a cup of water, then take the ice out and see if the temp is 32 degrees."
Safely storing leftover chicken takes a bit of effort. “One of the big mistakes people make is that they’ve just had dinner and they’ve got the remains of the a big carcass sitting out and they just put the whole thing in the refrigerator," Williamson said. "You really need to divide the pieces into smaller pieces and put them into shallower plates so they cool down and get to 40 degrees or below rapidly, because that’s what keeps bacteria from growing .”
She added, “A lot of people keep their [whole bird] out all afternoon, people walk by and pull off some of it and eat, and later people have gotten sick from their dinner, not because it wasn’t cooked safely but because it had been left out on the counter more than two hours. That’s a big cause of food-borne illness because if food is in that danger zone, bacteria can grow.”