There’s more than one way to cook chicken legs, and each yields a uniquely delicious result.
But if you cooked one too many, and you and the family can’t eat them all in one meal, you can simply put the cooked chicken legs in the fridge or freezer and save them for later.
This leads us to the questions you came here to get answered. Exactly how do you store cooked chicken legs? And by when should you use them up? For the answers, and some of our best tips and tricks for storing chicken legs safely, read on below.
How Long Do Cooked Chicken Legs Last?
Both the bacteria that make chicken legs spoil (spoilage bacteria) and those that cause food poisoning (pathogenic bacteria) thrive at room temperature, multiply slowly but surely in the fridge, and go into a full pause in the freezer.
This is why cooked chicken legs can only be left out and kept in the fridge for so long. Technically, frozen cooked chicken legs stay safe to eat forever. But their texture, aroma, and taste degrade the longer you store them. So don’t wait too long to thaw, reheat, and eat them.
As a general rule, cooked chicken legs keep for 1-2 hours at room temperature and 3-4 days in the fridge. Although the food in your freezer stays safe to eat indefinitely at 0°F (-18°C)1“Are You Storing Food Safely?” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely, frozen cooked chicken legs only retain their best quality for 1-3 months, after which they begin to dry out and lose flavor.2“Leftovers and Food Safety,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/leftovers-and-food-safety
Can You Eat Old Cooked Chicken Legs?
Don’t eat cooked chicken legs that have been on the kitchen counter or dining room table for more than 2 hours, or chicken legs you’ve kept in the refrigerator for more than 4 days. If you do, you may get food poisoning.
Even if the chicken legs look, smell, and taste fine, don’t eat them; there’s no guarantee that they are still safe to eat. Not everyone knows that the bacteria that make cooked chicken legs (and all other foods) spoil are not the same as the pathogens that cause foodborne illness.3“Do spoilage bacteria make people sick?” AskUSDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/Do-spoilage-bacteria-make-people-sick
In other words, cooked chicken legs that seem perfectly fine may still be overgrown with disease-causing bacteria. If the chicken legs are too old, it is impossible to determine whether or not they are still safe to eat without laboratory equipment.4“Food Poisoning (Food-borne Illness,” Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, https://food.unl.edu/food-poisoning-foodborne-illness
Will Heating Old Cooked Chicken Legs Make Them Safe to Eat?
Let’s talk about a dangerous misconception many of us have about the food we eat.
Reheating, recooking, or incorporating old cooked chicken legs into another dish won’t make them any safer to eat. (And this rule applies not just to chicken legs, but to all poultry as a whole.)
Exposure to heat does eliminate the pathogenic bacteria on the cooked chicken legs. However, those bacteria may have left heat-resistant spores and toxins behind on the flesh, which can just as well cause food poisoning.
To protect yourself (as well as the people you cook for) from food poisoning, discard cooked chicken legs if you suspect that they are too old to still be safe to eat—especially now that you know how old is too old.
How to Store Leftover Cooked Chicken Legs
Never leave leftover cooked chicken legs at room temperature for more than 2 hours, whether on the kitchen countertop or the dining room table. (In the summer, when it’s 90°F/32°C or hotter outside, this time is reduced to only 1 hour.)
Allow the leftover cooked chicken legs to cool down, then refrigerate them for storage of up to 4 days or freeze them for long-term storage (properly frozen, the cooked chicken legs retain their best texture, aroma, and flavor for no longer than 3 months).
Contrary to what many home cooks think, warm or even hot chicken legs can be placed directly in the refrigerator. However, it’s better for the rest of the food in your fridge if you first chill them, in cold water or an ice water bath, especially if you just removed them from the heat.
Before refrigeration or freezing, seal the chicken legs in ziplock bags or food storage containers with the lid closed. Some people will wrap theirs in aluminum foil or butcher paper, though it’s worth noting that loosely wrapped chicken legs can get damaged by freezer burn.
The Takeaways: The Shelf Life of Cooked Chicken Legs
Depending on the storage method, cooked chicken legs keep:
- For 1-2 hours when left out on the kitchen countertop or dining room table
- For 3-4 days when stored in a ziplock bag or food storage container and refrigerated
- Indefinitely when frozen, although they only retain their best quality for 1-3 months
When in doubt, follow food safety rule #1 and throw them out. Remember that spoilage bacteria and disease-causing bacteria are not the same thing, and cooked chicken legs that haven’t yet spoiled can nevertheless cause food poisoning.
- 1“Are You Storing Food Safely?” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely
- 2“Leftovers and Food Safety,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/leftovers-and-food-safety
- 3“Do spoilage bacteria make people sick?” AskUSDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/Do-spoilage-bacteria-make-people-sick
- 4“Food Poisoning (Food-borne Illness,” Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, https://food.unl.edu/food-poisoning-foodborne-illness