How long does leftover turkey last in the fridge?

Navigating Christmas Turkey: A Comprehensive Guide to Cooking, Storing, and Safely Enjoying Every Bite


Christmas is synonymous with a well-prepared turkey, but ensuring safety in the kitchen is equally important. Astonishingly, 400,000 people in the UK report post-Christmas food poisoning cases every year. As a food teacher, I’m here to provide practical insights to make your festive season a fun one free from foodborne illness often caused by bacterial growth in leftover turkey.  Meat products are usually a main cause for concern when it comes to food poisoning and there are lots of different steps to consider. 

First step: check the unopened package for an expiration date, sell-by date or use-by date. You should have a buffer of a number of days around Christmas – checking dates is a great way to be sure when it comes to perishable food but don’t forget to check for any obvious signs of food spoilage such as the smell and appearance, excess air and a slimy texture.

Tip 1: Defrosting the Turkey

The best way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the fridge, maintaining a temperature below 4 degrees Celsius. Place it in a large baking pan, and allocate 24 hours for every 2 kilograms. Plan around three days for an average-sized turkey. Leaving it out at room temperature for too long would  be dangerous as this is a breeding ground for bacteria – room temperature is right in the middle of the danger zone. I would suggest only leaving it out on the side for an hour before placing it in the oven. I cover mine with airtight heavy-duty aluminum foil. 

Tip 2: Cooking the Turkey

Ensure thorough cooking by checking packaging for times and weights. Allow 20 minutes per kilogram, plus 70 minutes for smaller or 90 for larger birds. The original store packaging should include cooking instructions so check this before discarding. There is no exact answer when it comes to cooking times and temperatures because ovens can vary so much in temperature, so be mindful that a fan oven can cook more quickly. You can use tinfoil to avoiding burning the outside and also to keep moisture in. I have seen lots of hints and tips for adding flavour and retaining moisture through basting, cooking upside down and adding butter under the skin.

Tip 3: Stuffed Turkey Considerations

If you opt for a stuffed or larger turkey, consider the added weight when calculating cooking time for both the bird and stuffing. This means you will need to cook the turkey for longer and is something a lot of people forget to do. 

Tip 4: Checking the Temperature

Use a temperature probe or check for clear juices with a skewer to confirm the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 75 degrees Celsius throughout. Using a probe to check the temperature at the biggest parts of the turkey. Roasted turkey breast should be white but be mindful that dark meat such as teh legs will be a different shade. 

Tip 5: Allowing the Turkey to Rest

If the turkey finishes earlier than your side dish options this is ok. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes, loosely covered with tin foil. Avoid leaving it out for more than 2 hours. Food safety experts suggest that two hours is the maximum time food should be left out for. This resting allows the juices to be absorbed in to the meat rather than dripping out and makes for a moist texture and the best flavour. 

Tip 6: Handling Leftovers

The first thing I do is promptly strip leftover cooked turkey into smaller pieces for quick cooling. Use an airtight container to store it safely. Avoid placing hot food directly in the fridge to maintain other items’ temperatures.

Tip 7: Storage and Cross-Contamination

Store cooked meat covered in the fridge, placing it above raw meat to prevent cross-contamination. Again check for signs of spoilage before you do this to make sure its safe. You can store turkey meat in the freezer safely in a freezer bag or air tight plastic wrap (to avoid freezer burn). 

Tip 8: Maximising Leftover Turkey

Safely store turkey leftovers for 2-3 days. (up to three months if frozen). A small amount of turkey is perfect for pies, and larger pieces of the white meat are great in curries. I like to use the breast meat for a turkey sandwich with stuffing and cranberry sauce. You can also make a good soup base just like you would a chicken broth from the carcass. When reheating, ensure leftovers reach 75 degrees Celsius.

Plan your meals creatively, minimising food waste and maximising the flavours of your holiday leftovers.

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Mastering Christmas turkey involves creating a centerpiece and prioritising safety. Follow these practical tips for preparation, cooking, and storage of your leftover turkey ensuring a memorable and safe holiday celebration. May your Christmas be filled with joy, good food, and shared moments.

Last Updated on 2 months by Lavania Oluban

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