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.
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 airtight 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.
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.