There are countless ways to prepare turkey, and it turns out just as delicious with each and every one of them.
And if you’ve cooked a little too much of it than you and the members of your household can eat in a single meal, which is probably the case since you’re reading this article, you can always put the cooked turkey in the fridge or freezer and save it for later.
But you may be wondering, exactly how do you store cooked turkey? And by when should you and the family eat it all up?
For the answers to these questions and the ones you didn’t know you had to ask, read on below!
How Long Does Cooked Turkey Last?
The key thing to know is that the bacteria that make turkey spoil and cause food poisoning for those who eat it thrive at room temperature, multiply slowly in the fridge, and go into pause in the freezer.
This is why cooked turkey can only be left out and kept in the fridge for so long. Technically, frozen food stays safe to eat forever.
But its texture, aroma, and taste degrade the longer you store it, so you shouldn’t wait too long to thaw, reheat, and serve it on the dining table.
As a general rule, cooked turkey keeps 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 turkey only retains its best quality for 1-3 months, after which it begins 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 Turkey?
Don’t eat cooked turkey that’s been on the kitchen counter or dining room table for more than 2 hours, or that you’ve kept in the refrigerator for more than 4 days. If you do, you may get food poisoning.
Even if the turkey looks, smells, and tastes fine, don’t eat it; this is no guarantee that it’s safe to eat. Not everyone knows that the bacteria that make cooked turkey (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 turkey that seems perfectly fine may still be overgrown with disease-causing bacteria. If the turkey is too old, discard it.
Try as you might, but is impossible to determine whether or not it’s safe to eat in the confines of your home, 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 Turkey Make It Safe to Eat?
Let’s talk about a dangerous misconception that many of us have about the food that we eat.
Reheating, recooking, or incorporating old cooked turkey into another dish won’t make it any safer to eat. (And this rule applies not just to turkey, but to all poultry as a whole.)
Exposure to heat does eliminate the pathogenic bacteria on the cooked turkey. 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 and those you cook for from food poisoning, discard cooked turkey if you suspect that it’s too old to still be safe to eat, especially now that you know how old is too old.
How to Store Leftover Cooked Turkey
Never leave leftover cooked turkey 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 turkey to cool down, then refrigerate it for storage of up to 4 days or freeze it for long-term storage (properly stored in the freezer, cooked turkey keeps its best texture, aroma, and flavor for no longer than 3 months).
Contrary to what many people think, warm or even hot turkey can be placed directly in the refrigerator. However, it’s better for the rest of the food in your fridge if you first chill it in cold water or an ice water bath, especially if you just took it off the heat.
Before refrigeration or freezing, seal the turkey in ziplock bags or food storage containers with the lid closed. Some people will wrap theirs in aluminum foil or butcher paper instead, although it’s worth keeping in mind that loosely wrapped turkey can get damaged by freezer burn in the freezer.
The Takeaways: Cooked Turkey’s Shelf Life
Depending on the storage method, cooked turkey keeps:
- 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 it only retains its best quality for 1-3 months
When in doubt, follow food safety rule #1 and throw it out. Remember that spoilage bacteria and disease-causing bacteria are not the same thing, and cooked turkey that hasn’t yet spoiled can still be unsafe to eat.
- 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