Turkey leftovers from your holiday feast are one of the best things about cooking a whole turkey, giving you plenty of easy and delicious meal options for the week ahead. But if you’ve ever wondered exactly how long it’s good for, you’re not alone.
While it might be easy to tell when something’s definitely gone bad by the way it looks or smells (slimy or rancid), you can still get sick from food that looks, smells, and tastes totally normal.
This is because bacteria flourish and multiply in the danger zone between 40 F and 140 F degrees, which is why you shouldn’t keep certain foods containing meat, dairy, or eggs out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
In this article, we’ll let you know how long it’s safe to keep your turkey and when to toss. And if you’re wondering about raw or frozen turkey, we’ve got you covered, too.
Leftover Cooked Turkey
If you’ve got a ton of leftover turkey meat, the first thing you should do is get it off the bone and into smaller pieces so it can cool down faster in the fridge or freezer. If you’ve roasted a whole, stuffed turkey, remove the stuffing and store it separately from the meat.
Try to get it in the refrigerator within two hours, because leaving it out at room temperature longer than that can turn your food into a breeding ground for unwelcome pathogens. This timeframe drops to 1 hour in temperatures above 90 F degrees.
We know it can be tempting to stretch out your leftovers over the course of a week. However, the U. S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating your leftover turkey, stuffing, and gravy within 3 to 4 days to be completely safe.
If you really want to extend the life of your leftovers, you can tightly wrap and freeze them within 2 hours of cooking. They’ll keep indefinitely provided they remain frozen at 0 F degrees, but for the best flavor and appearance, you should eat them within 3 to 6 months.
Fresh Raw Turkey
Once you’ve brought home some fresh turkey from the store, if you aren’t going to prepare it right away, you have two options.
Most fresh whole turkeys, ground turkey, and turkey parts are generally good for up to 2 days in the fridge, stored in their original packaging.
Also, look for the sell-by date on the package. Your turkey should be good for up to 1 or 2 days beyond the sell-by date when stored in the refrigerator.
If you’ve bought a vacuum-sealed product that specifies on the label that it’s good for longer, then you can follow those guidelines instead.
You can freeze raw turkey either in its original packaging or tightly wrapped in the freezer for 2 to 3 years provided its tightly wrapped and kept frozen the whole time. But for the best flavor, texture, and appearance, you should use it within 6 months.
Storage and Reheating Tips
- Don’t overcrowd the refrigerator. The fridge needs to maintain proper airflow around foods to keep them cool, so make sure the containers you’re using are the right size for the food you’re storing. Better yet, use plastic storage bags if you’re lacking space. Break down turkey meat into smaller pieces to ensure it cools quickly.
- Label your leftovers. This is especially important for frozen food, since its appearance could change and you won’t be able to easily to tell what you’re grabbing months later.
- Vacuum seal frozen food. If you plan to keep your cooked or raw turkey for a very long time, you can maintain its quality and flavor by vacuum sealing Plus, this can help prevent freezer burn.
- Wrap your food well. Use shallow airtight containers, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or heavy-duty freezer bags to keep your turkey fresh. You can even combine some of the methods like foil and freezer bags for maximum protection.
- Reheat leftovers properly. It’s safe to eat cold leftover turkey, but if you plan to reheat it, make sure it reaches a temperature of 165 F. The same goes for any leftover sides or gravy.
As a final note, remember the old saying “when in doubt, throw it out”. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially when it involves food poisoning. Any signs that your turkey has gone bad like an off-putting smell, slimy appearance, or any other changes mean you should definitely just throw it away and eat something else.
Writer and Product Researcher
Spending the last 10 years researching and writing about various home, garden and electronics topics, Shelley is more than qualified to write for Meccano Home. Her work has been featured on eBay, Pottery Barn, SFGate, TheKnot, Williams-Sonoma and various other blogs and websites.