By Andrea Lott Haney

If you're at the mercy of a "sell by" date, you may not know exactly how long your chicken will last after you bring it home. And because microbes that can cause illness don't change the appearance or odor of food, you can't rely solely on a foul smell to tell you that your raw chicken has gone bad. Instead, use these concepts to determine how to cook chicken when it's freshest, safest and most delicious.

Top view raw chicken on cutting board on wooden.
credit: villagemoon/iStock/GettyImages
Everything you need to know about whether the chicken in your fridge is safe to eat.

Refrigerator Temperature

Keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and store raw chicken in the coldest part of the fridge, which is usually the back of the bottom shelf or in the meat drawer. Make sure to decrease the storage time if you can't guarantee that the temperature will stay under 40 degrees F.

Package Dates

Package dates indicate the date by which the chicken should be sold and leave the store. Always cook or freeze the chicken within two days of bringing it home, regardless of what the package date tells you. Never store raw chicken in the fridge for longer than two days. In the store, commercial refrigerators keep the chicken colder than your fridge does, and putting it in your cart and transporting it home raises its temperature, allowing some bacterial growth.

Cooked Chicken

You can keep cooked chicken in the fridge for up to four days. Wrap the cooked chicken in plastic wrap or place it in an airtight container. Put it in the refrigerator -- at the back of the middle shelf -- as quickly as possible after it cools to room temperature. You can also store multi-ingredient dishes containing cooked chicken, such as chicken salad or chicken casserole, for up to four days.

Tips and Warnings

Don't trust your senses to tell you when chicken is safe to eat since many microbes are odorless, tasteless and can't be seen. However, you should immediately discard any chicken that has a foul odor or visible discoloration, even if it's within two days of bringing it home from the store. Some grocery stores refund the price of potentially contaminated food if you return it shortly after purchase. Don't try to rinse or wash chicken you think might be bad. That only contaminates your sink and kitchen surfaces without appreciably reducing the microbes on the chicken.