How to Tell When Chicken Has Gone Bad

updated May 27, 2022
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

We’ve all been there: You wrote your meal plan and intended to whip up everyone’s favorite lemon pepper chicken recipe, but then life got in the way. Before you know you it you’ve already ordered takeout three times this week, and that package of chicken is still waiting for you in the fridge. Now you’re wondering: Is that chicken still safe to eat, and how can I tell?

The good news is that not all is lost if your best intentions for dinner didn’t go according to plan. What’s the best way to tell if chicken has gone bad? Stick to four reliable checkpoints when making that assessment: date, color, smell, and feel.

1. Check the date.

Take a look at the “best by” date on the package. If you’re well past that date, the chicken likely isn’t safe to consume and it’s better to toss it than to risk getting sick. However, the “best by” date isn’t the only timeline you should keep in mind.

As a rule of thumb, raw chicken should not be left in the fridge for more than two days. According to the USDA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, raw chicken should be stored for no longer than one to two days in the refrigerator. If the chicken was previously frozen, this timeline goes into effect after the meat is fully defrosted.

If you’re the kind of person who is likely to forget the chicken in fridge, then learning a few tricks for how to defrost chicken quickly might be the best way for you to thaw your chicken (and eat it, too!).

2. Look at the coloring.

If you’re still not sure, use visual cues to help you out. What does the chicken look like? Does it still have a pinkish, fleshy hue, or has it started to take on a dull, grayish color?

As chicken spoils, its coloring fades from pink to dull gray. If the chicken has a grayish hue, it’s best not to use it.

3. Smell the chicken.

Never underestimate the power of the smell test! It seems overly simple, but it’s an effective tool in knowing when to keep or toss food.

If the chicken has a sour or pungent, noticeably foul smell, go with your gut instincts and throw it out.

4. Feel the chicken.

Chicken naturally has a glossy, slightly slippery texture. However, if it feels like there’s a layer of something over the chicken and that feels especially slimy, sticky, or thick, it’s best not to use the chicken.