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How Long Does Chicken Last in the Fridge? Your Meat Expiration Date Questions, Answered

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In the vexing moments when we stumble on an abandoned package of chicken thighs in the back of the fridge, we really have to consider two questions: Is it spoiled? And will it make us sick? They aren’t the same thing.

The organisms that spoil food make their presence known, causing it to smell funky, sprout tufts of mold, shape-shift, ooze. But counter-intuitively, “spoilage organisms do not usually make people sick — although the smell or flavor might!” said Barbara Kowalcyk, an associate professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

Instead, it’s pathogens like salmonella, norovirus, listeria and others, you need to worry about. Not only can they make you sick, they generally can’t be seen, smelled or tasted.

In short, the pathogens that can contaminate food are stealthy, so your best defense — especially for those in vulnerable populations (children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and pregnant and immunocompromised people) — is to make sure they don’t have time to proliferate.

Below are life spans of some common proteins, as approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They may seem conservative to anyone who’s pulled week-old leftovers out of the fridge and microwaved them an extra minute without incident, but “any recommendations for longer storage time will increase the risk,” said Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

And as always, be sure to follow the basics of safe food storage: refrigerating perishables at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler, never leaving them on the counter for more than two hours (one hour max on a 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter day), and being mindful of cross-contamination.

Like most cooked ingredients and leftovers, cooked chicken will be good for three to four days in the fridge. If you’re not a fan of the so-called warmed-over flavor of leftovers caused by oxidation (meats with a higher proportion of unsaturated fats like chicken and pork are especially vulnerable), the food scientist Harold McGee recommends seasoning the meat with herbs and spices that have antioxidant compounds like oregano, bay leaf, rosemary, dill and turmeric, sealing leftovers tight to keep oxygen out, and polishing them off quickly.

All raw chicken — whole, in pieces or ground — should be cooked one to two days after purchase and stored in a leakproof plastic bag from the time you pick it out at the store until you’re ready to cook it, according to the Partnership for Food Safety Education. (Really. In one 2018 study, nearly 10 percent of poultry package surfaces tested positive for the infectious bacteria campylobacter, E. coli or both.) Store it below any ready-to-eat foods in case of rogue drips, don’t wash it, cook it to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re golden.

Raw ground beef — and all ground meats — should be used within one to two days, since any surface bacteria could have scattered hither and yon in the grinding process. Don’t worry if you break into a package and find that some parts are a suspicious grayish-brown. Per the U.S.D.A., grocery store wrapping is permeable to let oxygen in to form a bright red color but it might not distribute evenly (if the meat is entirely gray or brown or smells foul, toss it). Store packages just like chicken and other raw meats — in a leakproof bag from the grocery store, in the coldest part of the fridge (low and toward the back).

Meal-preppers, take heart: Once it’s cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, ground beef will last 3 to 4 days in the fridge.

Because bacon has been cured with salt and is often smoked — both food preservation techniques — we get a little more time to make moves on it than we do with fresh meats. Stored in the fridge, it should be cooked within a week, regardless of any optional sell-by date on the package. If there’s a use-by date that’s even sooner, the U.S.D.A. recommends we honor it.

Though raw salmon and other fish should be dispensed with as soon as possible (within a day or two), once cooked, it will keep for up to four days. This is because sea creatures’ enzymes are already acclimated to colder waters and undeterred by fridge temperatures while raw. “So eat fresh fish fast, before it eats itself,” as Mr. McGee writes in his cult food science guidebook “On Food and Cooking.”

Cooked shrimp will keep for three to four days. In fact, the official recommendation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is to store shrimp only after cooking, since, as with other raw seafood, the fridge isn’t very effective at slowing its decline. Of course, cooking immediately isn’t always an option, so the biochemist and cookbook author Shirley O. Corriher’s favorite way to hold raw seafood to keep it fresh is piled with ice, set in a strainer in a deep bowl in the fridge — the ice keeps everything colder and, as it melts, rinses potential spoilers into the bottom of the bowl. (Or you could just buy frozen.)

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