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How Long can I Safely Eat Leftover Turkey?

Leftover turkey sitting out is safe to eat within two hours.
A turkey.
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  • Originally Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 March 2014
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Refrigerated turkey leftovers are usually considered safe to eat within three to four days after initial cooking, but a lot depends on your specific circumstances — particularly how well the turkey was cooked in the first place and how quickly the leftovers were stored. Freezing can extend leftovers' lifespan nearly indefinitely. Just because the meat is technically safe to eat does not mean that there is no chance of bacterial infection or food poisoning, however. It is still very important to adequately heat leftovers and pay attention to their color, texture, and taste.

Storing Leftovers

One of the first ways to ensure that turkey leftovers will remain safe to eat is to store them promptly, usually within about two hours of their being at room temperature. There is something of a window for safe storage, though — you don’t want to put meat that is steaming hot into the refrigerator or freezer, as this can cause condensation that can actually promote bacterial growth. It’s important that meat not sit out for long periods of time at room temperature, either. The best bet is to store it as soon as it has cooled.

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You will want to make sure that the meat is in an air-tight container. A plastic bag or snap-top box is usually best, though wrapping with plastic film or metal foil can also work. The main idea is to limit the amount of air that can touch the leftovers. Particularly for meat that is headed to the freezer, it is really important that things be as airtight as possible. Excess oxygen can lead to freezer burn — this isn’t necessarily a food safety concern, but it can destroy the taste of your leftovers.

It is usually a good idea to cut the meat into small pieces before storing it, or at the very least remove it from the bone. Breaking leftovers into a couple of shallow containers rather than placing it all in one big container is also recommended, as this will allow it to cool faster and more evenly.

Safely Timeline Under Refrigeration

Most food experts recommend that you eat leftover turkey within about four days of refrigerating it. It usually takes harmful bacteria longer than this to begin growing, at least on properly stored foods. After four days, the meat may become susceptible to mold and other growths that can cause food poisoning. For safety’s sake, it is usually better to discard meat stored past this point, even if it looks just fine.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Freezing

You can often get a much longer lifespan from frozen turkey leftovers, as most experts teach that frozen poultry remains technically safe indefinitely. It is usually best to consume it within three to four months, though, for taste reasons if nothing else. Turkey frozen for longer than four months tends to dry out and lose its flavor; it is often tough and unappetizing to eat.

Freezing is often the best storage method for large quantities of turkey, as well as “combination” meals that contain meat pieces — like soups, stews, and casseroles. It is often a good idea to write the date on containers before they are stored to make it easy to remember exactly how long they have been frozen.

Reheating Guidelines

It is usually considered safe to eat cold turnkey directly out of the refrigerator any time within the four day window. Reheating turkey that has been either refrigerated or frozen often involves a bit more precision. You can reheat meat pieces in the microwave, on the stove, or in the oven, but you will want to be sure that they reach an internal temperature of 165°F (about 74°C) before eating. Once poultry meat starts to warm, it creates an ideal climate for bacterial growth. Heating it to high enough temperatures is one of the best ways to prevent this and keep your meal safe.

If you find that you have “leftover” leftovers, you should observe the same basic storage techniques — but remember that your four day countdown started from the time the meat was originally cooked, not from when you reheated it. Most food safety experts recommend reheating leftover turkey no more than two times.

Common Signs of Spoilage

The general rule that turkey meat is safe to eat within four days of its storage is just that — a general rule. If your leftovers look like they have spoiled or give off unusual smells, do not eat them even if fewer than four days have passed. Spoiled poultry is often slimy and may have a grayish tint; it may also smell slightly sour. It is best not even to taste leftovers that have any of these characteristics.

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Discuss this Article

anon140253
Post 13

I like comment five. I looked on here to see if it's OK to eat my refrigerated turkey leftovers from Christmas and I believe I'm on the borderline so the dog can have it. Thanks.

anon131472
Post 12

I just ate left over turkey from Thanksgiving today. It has been zipped locked and put into the fridge and it tasted fine.

So I decided to make another sandwich today and this lady in my office asked if I froze the turkey meat and I told her no it's been sitting in my fridge in a zip lock bag. She started flipping out that I was going to get sick and she scared the ish out of me.

This is how i stumbled on to this site, and it looks like I'm in for it.

anon130620
Post 11

I cooked my turkey Thursday, carved it up, and then made turkey soup on Sunday. I froze the remaining carved turkey. If I reheat the soup today (Monday) does this pose a threat in any way as far as bacteria growth?

anon130316
Post 10

I agree with Post #5 - I've never heard of tossing the turkey after two days.

sense777
Post 9

I have some leftover turkey that I bought 11 days ago from Price Chopper and it smells fine and looks okay to me. Is turkey sold this way preserved in any way to make it keep longer? This is not the usual processed stuff that you can get.

anon63033
Post 7

In some villages in Africa they would keep cooked food unrefrigerated for several days or even a couple of weeks. They made sure to boil or heat the food at at least once a day however. Many of the people who were engaged in these practices never got sick and lived into their 90s.

Sure, food handled that way might kill an American. But it just goes to show how durable or how weak the human body is capable of becoming subject to its conditioning.

anon57997
Post 6

In comment 5, it states that it's safe to keep leftover turkey up to a weak in the fidge, in answer to a statement made earlier on this page, which states that a three day keeping period is safe. Who has the right information? Need to do something now.

anon54997
Post 5

This is ridiculous! The turkey will "accumulate" salmonella? If the turkey was properly cooked to begin with, then properly handled and stored after cooking, it shouldn't "accumulate" salmonella unless some fiend comes along and poisons it with same.

If there is salmonella still left in the turkey after cooking the first time, the turkey wasn't cooked properly! Buy a meat thermometer or use a pop up timer. They both go into the breast meat and don't touch bone.

When the thermometer registers 180 degrees or the pop up pops, the turkey is done and should be thoroughly cooked. Let it rest a bit after removing from oven (about 10 minutes or so), then open up the bird and take out the stuffing, putting it in a separate serving dish.

Don't worry about taking every crumb out, the idea is to allow the air to get to the inside of the bird and the stuffing so anaerobic bacteria can't grow (these wouldn't be killed by your oven's temp, but won't be a danger as long as you don't allow an airless environment to exist for very long -- these kind of bacteria are different from salmonella and are only a danger in airless conditions).

Store the leftover turkey in the fridge and it should be good for at least seven days, and probably longer, assuming the fridge is properly cold and everybody practices safe food handling when serving (i.e., clean hands, utensils, etc). I find the quality stays better in meat left on the carcass, rather than carving it off the bird, because more of the meat is exposed to air and can oxidize when sliced up for storage, leading to unappetizing meat.

And no, this doesn't contradict the previous advice about opening up the inside of the bird because the spoilage that happens with time and air in the fridge is different than the spoilage that is a real risk from things like botulism, salmonella, etc.

Many people get tired of the turkey after a day or so or find it gets gray, dry or less flavorful, but that's not the same as spoilage that would harm you.

Also, if you were careless about cleaning up after preparing the turkey for the oven, you could theoretically recontaminate the cooked bird or other foods from bacteria that splashed around or dirtied utensils, so wash everything in soap and hot water and rinse in hot water, and use a solution of bleach and water to sanitize sink, counter, etc.

As for reheating, it is not a good idea to reheat the whole bird again unless you are going to consume it in one go, because the quality suffers a lot with repeated reheatings. Just prepare a serving and heat that up in a microwave. The reheating is not supposed to kill bacteria -- you should have done that with the initial cooking, and then handle the food properly (again, clean hands, utensils) thereafter.

If you are really worried about this stuff, you can carve up the bird and put all the portions in the freezer and then just reheat as needed, but this is not really necessary if you are willing/able to eat that bird up in a week or 10 days (we do that in my house -- have cooked and eaten many turkeys with these practices and have never had an illness).

There is no magical cut-off date when the bird becomes unsafe to eat. Use common sense. The turkey will become really unappetizing long before it is a danger to eat.

anon24063
Post 4

Does reheating turkey or chicken at boiling temperatures (100 deg C) kill *all* dangerous bacteria and leave the poultry safe to eat? If not, why not?

anon23668
Post 3

I will never understand comments like "it's amazing people ever survived before refrigerators were invented". That's the whole point. They didn't! They had a REALLY short life expectancy and died from things like food poisoning all the time!

anon16223
Post 2

Its a wonder how people ever survived before the refrigerator was invented. People need to relax, and if you're so worried about your kids getting sick stop bottle feeding them so that they can develop an immune system. Oh and the bird flu is coming so run inside and hide before it kills you!

anon6241
Post 1

is reheating cooked turkey leftovers a safe and reliable way to kill bacteria or salmonella?

Moderator's reply: That's a good question! Our article, How Long Will Meat Stay Fresh in the Refrigerator? may be of use to you.

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