5 Simple Habits for Raw Chicken Safety

chicken seasoned with spices

 The Spruce

Chicken has a reputation as a food safety nightmare. After all, raw chicken carries the salmonella bacteria, which is responsible for more cases of food poisoning than any other pathogen.

So yes, if you're not careful with your chicken, you (or someone else) could end up with a nasty case of food poisoning.

Fortunately, being careful isn't all that hard. Learn these five simple habits for buying, storing and preparing your chicken and poultry safely

illustration with tips on how to safely handle raw chicken
Illustration: Madelyn Goodnight. © The Spruce, 2019

1: Keep Chicken Cold

Fresh chicken needs to be kept cold, both to extend its shelf life and to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. That's because temperature is one of the six factors that contribute to the growth of bacteria that cause food poisoning. 

Packages of chicken you buy at the store should obviously feel cold to the touch, and should be among the last items you select before checking out. Use an extra plastic bag to prevent leakage onto other items in your grocery cart.

Once you're home, you should immediately place your chicken in a refrigerator that maintains a temperature of 40 F or colder. The official recommendation is that you use it within two days, but to ensure maximum freshness, it's best either to use it the day you bring it home or freeze it. Even if you know you're going to have to thaw it the day after that, freeze it anyway.

By the way, your fridge has a temperature control, but it might only be numbered on a scale of 1 to 10, and those numbers don't tell you what the actual temperature is. To know that, you need a refrigerator thermometer. Just place it in your fridge and use it to calibrate the temperature.

Even if your fridge does display temperatures, a fridge thermometer will still help confirm that the temperature your fridge displays is correct. Get two, and use one in the freezer, which should be set to 0 F.

2: Safely Thaw Frozen Chicken

First of all, never defrost chicken on the counter or the microwave. It's not uncommon to see various sources suggesting that it's acceptable to thaw frozen meat or poultry in the microwave. But it's not. Ever. Even if your microwave has a defrost setting on it.

The reason for this is simple: microwaves generate heat, and heat produces temperatures that promote the growth of bacteria. The defrost setting on a microwave is simply alternating short blasts of power followed by long intervals of no power. This is a terrible way to defrost a chicken because it combines hazardous temperatures and the passage of time. Time is another of those six factors mentioned earlier. That's because it takes time for bacteria to reproduce, and they do so geometrically.

Some sources claim that it's all right to defrost meat or poultry in the microwave "in an emergency." On the other hand, this list of food poisoning symptoms might help clarify your definition of the word "emergency."

The correct way to thaw frozen poultry requires planning ahead for the time required to thaw it in the refrigerator. Whole chickens may take up to two days to fully thaw in this way, while boneless breasts should thaw overnight. Once the product thaws, it should be kept in the refrigerator no more than a day before cooking it. And no refreezing. Once it's thawed, use it within a day or toss it.

Worst comes to worst, if you happen to get caught up and forget to thaw your chicken overnight, you can actually cook it from its frozen state. While it's not the ideal method of cooking chicken, it works in a pinch.

3: Freezing Chicken Does Not Kill Bacteria

Just like meat, fish or any animal-based food product, raw or undercooked chicken carry certain bacteria. These bacteria can make you sick if they're given the opportunity to multiply. Therefore to avoid illness, we need slow down their reproductive cycle, which we do by refrigerating or freezing the food; or kill them altogether, which we do by cooking it. And remember, freezing doesn't kill bacteria, either — it just makes them cold. The only way to kill food-borne pathogens is by thoroughly cooking the food.

4: Avoid Cross Contamination

Another concern with respect to working with uncooked poultry is cross-contamination, which is a term to describe what can happen when raw poultry — or just its juices — somehow comes into contact with any other food products but especially ones that are already cooked or ones that will be eaten raw, such as salad vegetables or greens.

An example is if a cook were to cut raw chicken on a cutting board and then later slice fresh tomatoes on the same board without washing it first.

Cross contamination can also happen in the fridge. Raw chicken can leak, and the dripping juices could contaminate items nearby or on the shelf below. Store your chicken tightly sealed and keep it on the lowest shelf of the fridge, so that it can't leak onto anything below it.

And keep it toward the rear of the fridge, where it stays coldest and is least affected by temperature drops from the door opening.

5: Cook Your Chicken Thoroughly

Making sure chicken and poultry is cooked thoroughly is a major part of preventing food poisoning. The following table gives approximate cooking times for different chicken types and cooking methods:

Type of Chicken Weight Roasting at 350°F Simmering Grilling
Whole Broiler/Fryer 3-4 lbs. 1¼-1½ hrs. Not suitable 60-75 min.
Whole Roasting Hen 3-4 lbs. 1¼-1½ hrs. Not suitable 60-75 min.
Whole Capon 4-8 lbs. 2-3 hrs. Not suitable 15-20 min./lb.
Whole Cornish Hens 18-24 oz. 50-60 min. 35-40 min. 45-55 min.
Breast Halves, bone-in 6-8 oz. 30-40 min. 35-45 min. 10-15 min./side
Breast Half, boneless 4 oz. 20-30 min. 25-30 min. 6-8 min./side
Legs or thighs 8 or 4 oz. 40-50 min. 40-50 min. 10-15 min./side
Drumsticks 4 oz. 35-45 min. 40-50 min. 8-12 min./side
Wings or wingettes 2-3 oz. 30-40 min. 35-45 min. 8-12 min./side

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture