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How Long Does Chicken Salad Last (Out & In Fridge)? How to Tell if it’s Bad.

Find out how long chicken salad lasts in and out of the fridge. Plus, get the facts on how to tell when the salad has gone bad (even within the safe-to-eat time frame).

Bowl of chicken salad with lettuce.

Making a big batch of chicken salad for a crowd? If so, you may be wondering about the food safety logistics. How long can chicken salad sit out? How long does chicken salad last in the fridge? And how can you tell if chicken salad is bad?

Relax. You will find all those answers here. Then you can be prepared for your party and enjoy it instead of stressing about the food.

Chicken Salad at Room Temperature

How long can chicken salad sit out? The FDA guidelines state that chicken salad should not sit at room temperature for longer than two hours. And if the temperature is above 90°F (32°C), the chicken salad should be refrigerated after only one hour.

The average room temperature ranges from 68 to 78°F (20 to 26°C). And this temperature can be several degrees higher on a hot summer day.

Room temperature falls in the “danger zone,” between 40 and 140°F (4 and 60°C). In these danger zone temperatures, bacteria thrive. Therefore, limiting the time food is at room temperature is critical.

Remember the two-hour rule. Refrigerate chicken salad within two hours to keep it safe to eat. And don’t be afraid to use a food thermometer to take the temperature of the salad.

Tips to Make Sure the Chicken Salad Stays Safe for the Potluck

Lettuce bowl of chicken salad sitting on a buffet table.

Barbecues and other parties are known for the buffet of food that sits out for the duration of the get-together. However, this is not safe for perishable food, like chicken salad.

Here are a few tips to ensure the salad stays safe whenever you serve it at a gathering. Always remember the two-hour rule.

Keep the chicken salad refrigerated until right before you serve it.

Setting out the food early may be tempting, so you don’t have to worry about it when guests arrive. However, if your visitors are chatting before they eat or you are waiting for Uncle Bob to show up with the ice, keep the chicken salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Then when you pull it out of the fridge, your two-hour countdown begins.

Keep the serving bowl portions small.

Not sure how quickly the chicken salad will get eaten? Don’t plop the whole recipe out there in a giant bowl.

Instead, divide the salad up into smaller bowls. Then refrigerate all the bowls of chicken salad except the one on the buffet table. When that salad is gone, replace the empty bowl with a cold bowl of salad from the refrigerator.

You see this all the time at catered events. The staff swaps out old bowls with fresh food during the whole meal.

Refrigerate the chicken salad after everyone has served themselves.

Yes, it will take a watchful eye. But once people have loaded up their plates, you can put the chicken salad back in the fridge.

Don’t worry. You can pull it back out when people return for seconds. And if you forget? Rest assured, when the teenage boys go for round two, they will ask if there is any chicken salad left. Then you can quickly pull it out again.

Use a cold serving tray.

Plenty of serving trays can keep your chicken salad sandwiches chilled for the duration of the event. You no longer need to set the food on the table and hope for the best.

Here are just a few chilled serving tray options available. (These are affiliate links.)

  • Deep chiller bowl. Fill the double-walled insulated bowl with water and then freeze it. Pour the chicken salad into the bowl and set it on the buffet table.

    The chicken salad will stay chilled for a couple of hours as the ice in the inner wall melts. Don’t worry. The ice won’t melt into the salad.
  • A serving tray on ice. Pour ice cubes on the bottom plate. Then place the serving tray with the chicken salad sandwiches on top of the ice. It should fit securely.

    As a bonus, many of these trays come with a lid. Your food will stay cold, and you can keep the bread from drying out simultaneously.
  • Flexifreeze party mat chiller. This comes with a freezable ice sheet that you insert into the mat. The water is contained when the ice sheet melts, so there is no soggy mess. You can swap the thawed ice sheet out for a frozen one if you need food chilled longer.

Need some creative ways to serve chicken salad? Read up on the best ways to serve chicken salad at a party.

How Long Does Chicken Salad Last (in the fridge)?

A refrigerator with food, including chicken salad leftovers.

If you made it through your party with leftovers, lucky you.

But now you may wonder how long chicken salad lasts in the fridge. According to the FDA, chicken salad is safe to eat for three or four days if it is refrigerated correctly. After that time, the salad should be thrown out.

Your refrigerator should be 40°F (4°C) or colder at all times. Use a refrigerator thermometer to check the temperature of your fridge periodically.

When Does the Countdown Begin?

Remember the three-to-four-day timeframe that the salad is safe to eat? If you made the chicken salad early, that countdown begins on the day the salad was prepared. Not on the day after you serve it.

Check out this informative post on making chicken salad early. You won’t want to miss my valuable tips to prevent the salad from getting soggy.

Storage Tips

Plastic storage container to store leftover chicken salad.

Improper storage affects the shelf life of chicken salad. NEVER store chicken salad outside of the refrigerator. It must always be chilled. And ALWAYS keep the salad in a closed container.

What if you want to preserve the salad longer? Can you freeze chicken salad? As a general rule, chicken salad does not freeze well.

If the chicken salad recipe has mayonnaise, a mayonnaise-based salad dressing, or dairy products, it will break down when frozen. However, Miracle Whip does freeze well.

Fruits or vegetables with high moisture content (like celery) will turn mushy when thawed. So, don’t freeze salads with celery, grapes, or apples.

If you do want to freeze chicken salad, check out this post on when you can and can’t freeze chicken salad. You will like the hints about how to make a chicken salad you intend to freeze.

When you eat leftovers, always use clean tools to spoon the food onto your plate. And refrigerate leftover salad right after making your chicken salad sandwich.

Does Deli Chicken Salad Last Longer Than Homemade?

Closeup of bowl of chicken salad with chicken salad sandwich in the background.

Recently I picked up a container of Costco chicken salad. The first thing I looked for was the expiration date. What I found was a “pack date” and a “sell date.”

The pack date was three days earlier than the sell date. Since I bought the salad on the sell date, I was concerned that the salad’s fresh taste had passed and that it would be bad within a day.

So, I called Costco to find out how long the deli salad was safe to eat. I was told that the sell date indicated the last day they could guarantee the best taste. However, because of certain preservatives, it could be safely eaten 1 or 2 days past the sell date.

Sam’s Club had a similar story. Although I was cautioned to not buy the salad being sold on the sell date, it wasn’t for food safety reasons. It was because the taste and crispness of veggies in the salad would diminish after that date.

The Sam’s Club employee also told me that their chicken salad is always pulled from the shelf on the sell date and donated to a local food bank.

“But someone is still going to eat it,” I said. They agreed, reemphasizing the salad was safe to eat for a couple of days after the sell date.

That makes sense because when I took a closer look at the deli industry, I learned that delis use antimicrobial natural shelf-life extenders. These preservatives help prevent the growth of bacteria in the food container.

The ready-made deli food industry is growing. Because their products are mainly perishable foods, they do extensive research to find the best way to keep salads fresh for a long time.

Some ready-made deli foods containing chicken are preserved and packed in a way that keeps them fresh for over a month (if the package is not opened).

If you have proper storage conditions (an airtight bowl in the refrigerator), the salad’s quality should remain tip-top for a few days after you open the package.

So, does store-bought chicken salad last longer than homemade? In most cases, deli chicken chicken salad lasts a few days longer than homemade because of the preservatives in the salad and the packing process.

Always double check with the deli where you buy the salad. And pay attention to the dates on the package.

If you like to buy chicken salad, you will love this post on how to make store-bought chicken salad better. Learn lots of little tricks to easily jazz up the salad.

How to Tell if Chicken Salad is Bad

Bowl of chicken salad with a white background.

If your homemade chicken salad has been in the fridge longer than four days, toss it. It is not worth the risk of getting sick. The FDA food safety guidelines are in place to help prevent foodborne illnesses.

If your chicken salad is less than three days old and you suspect it is bad, throw it out.

Keep in mind that any prepared food lasts only as long as the ingredient in it that degrades the fastest. If the grapes were old when you tossed them in the recipe, they could shorten the shelf life of the whole salad.

Here are some warning signs that could indicate early spoilage:

  • Mold. No question. Throw it out. Don’t scrape off the mold and eat the rest of the salad. Mold can be green, black, grey, or even bluish.
  • Unpleasant smell. Don’t worry about what caused the bad smell. Chuck it. Harmful bacteria, yeast, and mold microbes can release an unpleasant odor.

    Sometimes the microbes have a sour smell, and sometimes the foul odor is the chemical byproduct of the microbe decomposing the food. Beware of food with a musty, earthy, sour, putrid, sulfur, or rotten smell.

    Bacterial growth in food is serious. Food poisoning can cause severe nausea and other stomach ailments.
  • Critter infestation. If ants or other pests contaminated your chicken salad during a summer picnic, throw the food out. That’s a given. No explanation needed.
  • Sliminess. If any ingredients in the chicken salad start to get a slimy texture, it’s time to toss the food. Sometimes celery or grapes get slimy. This is often accompanied by a sour taste or smell. Sliminess = time to toss it.

FAQ

What happens if the leftover chicken salad is watery? Does that mean it has gone bad early?

Chicken salad containing ingredients with a high-water content can get watery after a couple of days. Examples of high moisture foods include celery, apples, and grapes.

In addition, some dressings and even mayonnaise can start to break down, making the salad soggy. When this happens, drain the excess moisture. It is not a good idea to stir the liquid back in because it doesn’t taste good. And it won’t improve the taste of the salad either.

What happens if the fruit, vegetables, or nuts get soft?

Softening of these ingredients does not necessarily mean the salad is bad. Fruits and vegetables often lose crispness after being cut. The salad may not be bad, but the fresh ingredients’ crunchy texture and taste diminish over time.

Bottom Line

To conclude, don’t take chances if you are concerned with the food. Your health and the health of your loved ones are not worth the risk.

Remember:

  • Refrigerate perishable food in an airtight sealed container after 2 hours OR 1 hour if temperatures are above 90°F (32°C).
  • Always store the chicken salad in the refrigerator at 40°F (4°C) or colder. Freezing chicken salad is usually not recommended. In very limited circumstances, freezing won’t affect the quality of your chicken salad.
  • Homemade chicken salad generally lasts three or four days in the refrigerator if properly stored. Deli chicken salad can usually last two to three days past the “sell date” when handled correctly.
  • Throw out any salad that looks or smells questionable or that is infested with critters.
  • Beware of microbial contamination in bad chicken salad.
  • Watery salad doesn’t mean necessarily mean it is bad, but it won’t taste as good as fresh chicken salad. Drain the salad before eating it.

Chicken Salad Recipes

  • Canned chicken salad for a crowd. Make a large batch of chicken salad by starting with Costco canned chicken breast. Make enough to have leftover salad the next day for lunch. The ingredient list includes savory items like celery, pickles, and onions.

    Pro tip: Use Costco canned chicken rather than the stuff from the grocery store. Costco’s tastes much better.
  • Instant Pot chicken salad with grapes. The best chicken salad has moist, tender cooked chicken. You can get chicken like that by cooking your chicken in the Instant Pot.

    Check out my best tips to prevent overcooking the chicken. You will love the texture of the chicken salad with this recipe. Even better, it cooks in a short period of time.

Make Your Chicken Salad Sandwich Better

Check out these posts to make your chicken salad sandwich amazing.


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