After all of the time and preparation of cooking a turkey, most of us can’t wait until the moment we can take the bird out of the oven with its wonderful aromas and crisp golden-brown skin. And everyone wants to be sure to save the leftovers (there always are some) for turkey soup. How can you be sure your leftovers are safe?
A turkey can sit out for a maximum of two hours in the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees F. If the room temperature is above 90 degrees, limit the time that turkey sits out to only one hour. After that time, it must be put away in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria on the surface.
Before you let your cooked turkey sit out in the temperature danger zone for too long, read on to learn about food safety and how to safely store your delicious leftovers.
The exact time period cooked turkey can sit out depends on a few different factors. As a rule of thumb, if your meat has been out in the temperature danger zone for more than two hours, even after being refrigerated, throw it out.
If the turkey was just cooked and is cooling down, try to put it away within two hours. If the turkey had previously been in the fridge, it can still only stay out for two hours.
The timing isn’t about what temperature the turkey meat was, to begin with – instead, it’s all about how long the turkey sits within the temperature range where bacteria grow readily.
To be safe, store your cooked turkey as soon as possible to eliminate the chance for bacterial growth.
Just as cooking turkey to the proper internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or above destroys bacteria in the raw meat, we have to be mindful of bacterial growth on the meat after it is allowed to sit out.
There are many different types of bacteria that can grow in the food we eat. They can grow easiest between 40- and 165-degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the fridge, many bacteria colonies can still grow, but their metabolism is slowed way down. That is why food products still have an expiration date, even if they are refrigerated.
Common types of bacteria associated with foodborne illness include:
These bacteria live in the internal organs of livestock animals, including turkeys. Surprisingly, they are commonly found in humans as well. Sickness can happen when there is an influx of too many bacteria at a time. When you leave the turkey out too long, any bacteria that got on the cuts of meat during butchering can multiply to unsafe levels.
Turkey should be stored in smaller pieces, not whole. Do not try to put the entire carcass into the fridge. It is difficult to seal into a single container, and it will take a long time to cool down.
Take all the meat off the bones soon after eating and put it in an airtight container. You should store the turkey in smaller portions as it will be cooler faster and reheat faster. Bring the turkey leftovers back up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before you eat it out of the fridge.
If you want to freeze the cooked turkey leftovers, you have six months to eat them. To prevent freezer burn, wrap the meat in foil and put it in a freezer bag with the air squeezed out.
When you are ready to thaw out the frozen cooked turkey, place it in the fridge. Do not thaw it out on the counter.
You can reheat turkey directly from frozen. It will take longer than if the turkey was thawed, and it is very important to still check the temperature with a thermometer before eating. Again, you should have stored the leftovers in small portions for effective reheating.
While knowing how long you can keep the cooked turkey on your countertop is very important, the food safety aspect of taking care of your post-meal leftovers doesn’t end there. How you handle your turkey and what you use to prepare it for storage is critical.
As you are aware, after you prepare the raw turkey, you should clean any surface, cutting board, knife, or anything else that touched the meat. Before the meat is cooked, it can leave bacteria behind on surfaces. Therefore, it is very important to clean anything that touches the raw meat with soap and hot water before using it again for vegetables or even carving the turkey after cooking.
Now, when you go to cut up the meat for storage, it is equally important that any surface and utensil you put the cooked meat on is clean and sanitized. If your knife and cutting board have bacteria on them, what happens when your delicious turkey contacts them? Here’s a hint: it’s not good.
After handling raw turkey, take care to wash your hands thoroughly and correctly so that leftover bacteria do not have any hiding places. That way, bacteria cannot be transferred onto anything else. You might be surprised to learn about the mechanics behind washing your hands with soap.
The friction of rubbing your hands together helps to lift dirt and germs off the surface of your skin. So, don’t skim on that part.
Make sure to lather both the fronts and backs of your hands and to scrub between your fingers and fingernails. It should take at least 20 seconds to do all this thoroughly.
Shockingly, many studies have been done on the effectiveness of regular soap and “antimicrobial” soap that show that the antimicrobial version is not any more effective than regular!
If you are interested in chemistry, get some details on the nitty-gritty here. But suffice it to say that this step of proper handwashing will prevent the spread of harmful bacteria on your leftovers.
If you are going to use the turkey within the next 3 or 4 days, you can put it in the fridge. Remember, bacteria can still grow on products in the fridge, but it will take that much more time before they start to reach unsafe levels.
If you put stuffing in the turkey when you cooked it, you should remove it to a separate container for storage. Keep in mind; it is not recommended to stuff the inside of the turkey. It is safer to put stuffing on the outside of the turkey if you want to cook both dishes on the same tray. The USDA also does not advise buying pre-stuffed turkeys.
If you end up cooking the stuffing with the turkey, be sure to temp it as well as the bird. Just like the turkey meat itself, stuffing needs to reach over 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be at a safe temperature to remove from the stove. And it needs to be put away before it’s been in the temperature danger zone for two hours.
In conclusion, you can stay healthy and enjoy leftovers for days to come by following the tips outlined in this article.
Never your turkey out to graze on all night and put it in the fridge once you are done eating. As always, follow good cleanliness procedures by keeping your tools and hands sanitized and cooking the turkey thoroughly.
By treating your turkey this way, you can enjoy the leftovers for days to come!