Leaving raw chicken out for 2 hours?
September 11, 2018 4:08 AM   Subscribe

The USDA implies that you can leave uncooked chicken out of the fridge for up to 2 hours before cooking: "That’s why the Meat and Poultry Hotline advises consumers to never leave food out of refrigeration over 2 hours." [PDF] This sounds gross and unsanitary, but maybe my intuition about safety is wrong. Is it really safe?

This isn't urgent, but it did lead to a discussion of whether we can prep a crock pot in the morning and leave it sitting there cold for 1-2 hours before turning it on.
posted by Tehhund to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I regularly have over an hour time lapse between purchasing chicken and getting it home to my fridge and I'm not dead yet.
posted by cholly at 4:19 AM on September 11, 2018 [15 favorites]

My understanding is that the USDA's consumer guidelines for food handling are fairly conservative, as you'd want them to be from a public health standpoint. You don't want to publish a guideline that's right at the limit of safety, because there are a lot of idiots out there (or just momentarily-inattentive people) who are going to regularly cross that limit and you don't want them all to definitely die. You want some buffer. So if the USDA says two hours is safe, I'd tend to assume it's safe.

If you think about it, pretty much any raw chicken you encounter is going to start out cold, unless it's from a freshly-slaughtered chicken. In the former case, some of that two hour period will be spent with the chicken still cold. In the latter case, there will have been much less time for any potential contaminants to take hold. So two hours doesn't seem so bad to me, even just intuitively.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:21 AM on September 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

Leaving packaged, store-bought chicken that was cold when you put it in your shopping cart unrefrigerated for 2 hours is nothing as far as food safety goes. It's still sealed. It's not getting dirtier. The chicken's been washed so the exterior that warms first is pretty clean. Whatever microbes are deep inside would just barely get started in that period of time.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:31 AM on September 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

In answer to your indirect question, leaving a crockpot full of meat-based ingredients off for a couple hours before starting a cooking cycle is not something I'd choose to do, unless everything that went into it was fridge-temperature to start. The mass of cold things would take a long time to warm up so would be ok. But if you got warm chicken, warm veggies, warm stock, and leave that sit for two hours then cook it, I am saying no, that's not a great idea unless you are going to cook it on HI or AUTO where it will come to/near a boil first. And even then, bad practice.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:36 AM on September 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

It's about temperature. When you take the chicken out of the fridge, it's just a few degrees above frozen. Over two hours it'll gradually move towards room temperature (thermodynamics in action!), but in most circumstances will not become warm enough to enable pathogens to reproduce on the surface of the meat in sufficient numbers to pose a health risk.

All of this is quite general. The geometry of your pieces of chicken will determine how quickly they move towards room temp. The ambient temperature will, too. In my kitchen, chicken will happily remain cold for a lot more than 2 hours. In your toasty kitchen, it could be a lot less. Being submerged in a liquid probably has some effect on things too.

Erring on the other side, and cooking chicken directly from the fridge can also pose a risk, as you may end up cooking the outside thoroughly while the inside doesn't get hot enough to be safe (due to its low starting temperature). But that's a different issue.

Getting more specific, most advice recommends thawing the chicken before cooking it in a crock pot. So I think I'd be happy to put frozen chicken into a crock pot if I knew I would be leaving it for two hours, because that would give it time to defrost in the liquid. I'd also think that it would be fine to have a two-hour delay if I knew that both the chicken and the other contents of the crock top would be reasonably cold to start with. The thermal mass of the food means it's won't reach the temperature 'danger-zone' very quickly.

What I wouldn't do is leave the chicken in a pot of warm liquid for 2 hours. And I wouldn't leave it out for two hours on an especially warm day either. But you're not doing that, so you ought to be fine. If you're still not convinced, just extend the cooking time - most slow-cooked recipes won't be noticeably affected by an extra hour or two of cooking, anyway.
posted by pipeski at 4:39 AM on September 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

I would prep a crock pot full of food in the morning and leave it unheated on the counter for a couple of hours before turning it on, with no hesitation whatsoever. Meat from the fridge, right? The insulating properties of the crock mean that the cool temps of the meat will move toward room temp more slowly than sitting out. Alternatively, turn the heat on low right then, instead of high later on.
posted by Sublimity at 5:05 AM on September 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

The professionals at the USDA have spent hundreds of person-years using stringent scientific methods to develop conservative guidelines for food safety. They are intended to be ‘idiot proof’.

While many times it is reasonable to think that a USDA guideline is overly conservative, there is not a single guideline I have ever heard of from them that is reasonably criticized as not conservative enough. You can implicitly trust them to provide safe best practices for food handling and preparation, that’s the entire point.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:06 AM on September 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

I mean, is your transport mechanism refrigerated? I'm pretty sure the grocery delivery guys take an hour or two, even, and lord knows how many times it was under-refrigerated in the chain of custody from farm to supermarket anyway.

At the end of all this, though, you're cooking it, and to a specific internal temperature for safety reasons, so the odds are pretty high that you're killing whatever you're worried about.

Now, leaving something out that you intend to eat raw, like torisashi or sakuraniku... that's riskier.
posted by rokusan at 6:02 AM on September 11, 2018

Generally speaking, the maximum amount of time raw meat should be in the temperature "danger" zone is four hours. Two hours for raw chicken that starts out at refrigerator temperature is no big deal. Moreover, by the time you finish cooking the chicken in a slow cooker you will have killed off any potentially harmful bacteria, and boiling for ten minutes will even neutralize botulism toxin (not a concern here since the chicken is not in an anaerobic environment). All this is to say that there really isn't much of a health concern. Potentially, if the raw chicken is extremely contaminated by some spoilage bacteria it's possible that it could make the contents of the slow cooker taste bad. But it wouldn't make you sick. And it's pretty easy to smell when something like that may have happened. In any event, cooking it all in the slow cooker should kill everything.

If you want to be extra careful, I would suggest making sure that all the ingredients are cold when you combine them in the slow cooker insert, and you might even consider chilling the insert itself with all the ingredients inside. This will create a thermal mass that won't warm up very rapidly, and everything should still be pretty cool by the time you start cooking it.

Here's my question: Why not prep the slow cooker insert and leave it in the refrigerator until you're ready to turn it on? This way you could even prepare everything a day ahead of time and not worry about spoilage. (I would probably set out a prepared slow cooker insert that was well-chilled for a few hours anyway before heating it up just so the ceramic doesn't potentially crack.)

Way too much information here.
posted by slkinsey at 6:48 AM on September 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Easy test: spouse walks into kitchen and screams "call a hazmat team", too long. Otherwise if worried, cook to 170 or 180.
posted by sammyo at 7:12 AM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't think the USDA is yet in the business of actively trying to kill people. There is science behind their recommendation, and it is also balanced with reality - we do not carry around refrigeration units to do our shopping, and preparation time is a thing, as is hang-time after cooking where temperature might fall under 140. Most state food safety certifications use the same guidelines (plus the guidelines for holding food hot once cooked).

Yes, if you can feasibly not keep it out that long, that's great. But the guidelines are reasonable.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:03 AM on September 11, 2018

The big concern with chicken is salmonella and as long as you are cooking it to a final internal temp of 165, you are fine. Salmonella actually dies at lower temps (some interesting new research out of Penn State), but for your purposes, just remember 165.

You can absolutely continue to leave the slow cooker out at room temp for 1-2 hours before cooking it to an internal temp of 165. The low setting on a slow cooking is generally 200-210 (below the boil), but given that most folks cook for around 8 hours, that is more than enough time to reach the magic internal temp of 165.

bona fides: I am a chef instructor and teach basic sanitation to students, including safe cooking temps like 165. I promise you, not only is it solid info, but students tend to remember it after hearing/reading it repeatedly.


posted by jenquat at 8:10 AM on September 11, 2018 [9 favorites]

The problem with leaving cold things in a crockpot, is the additional time to heat to enough to pass through the danger zone to a safe temperature once you do start cooking. Slow cookers heat up slowly sort of by definition. If you calculated the time you cooker goes from cold ingredients temp to safe temp into that time, that would most likely be ok assuming it passes through the danger zone temps the bacteria love fast enough.
posted by wwax at 8:15 AM on September 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just overcook everything by 2 hours. Seriously, food in the crock usually gets better the longer it cooks.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:30 AM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I BBQ 24-36 chicken wings at least once a week and I always let them come up to room temperature first, about 2 hours. No one's gotten sick yet.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:10 AM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Why not prep the slow cooker insert and leave it in the refrigerator until you're ready to turn it on?
This is generally not recommended by the manufacturer due to the risk of thermal shock when the cold insert hits the warming element. I'd suggest keeping it all cool in a slow cooker liner tied with a twist tie to keep it from spilling. Then you put the cold food in the room temperature liner and start the cooker.
posted by soelo at 10:02 AM on September 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hardcore meal preppers/freezer meal preppers generally assemble all ingredients in a gallon ziploc (or two gallon ziplocs, or a gallon ziploc plus 1 or 2-quart mason jars). Or, if you want something tough and rewashable, I have three of these 2qt Cambro lidded food supply tubs (lids sold separately there, though) that you can prep in.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:27 AM on September 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

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