Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday centered around food, family, and gratitude. The star of the Thanksgiving meal is often a beautifully roasted turkey. But what happens to all those leftovers once the festivities die down? Is turkey still safe to eat 5 days after cooking?
The Short Answer
Yes, turkey is generally still safe to eat up to 5 days after cooking, provided it has been stored properly in the fridge. The exact shelf life depends on a few factors, but turkey will typically last 3-5 days refrigerated.
How Long Does Cooked Turkey Last in the Fridge?
Cooked turkey that has been properly stored in the refrigerator will usually stay fresh for 3-5 days after cooking. Here are some general guidelines for refrigerator storage times for leftover turkey:
- Whole turkey: 4-5 days
- Turkey pieces or slices: 3-4 days
- Turkey casseroles or soup: 3-4 days
These timeframes assume the cooked turkey is stored in airtight containers in the fridge within 2 hours of cooking. Storing turkey for longer than 5 days increases the risk of bacterial growth.
How to Tell if Turkey Has Gone Bad
The best way to know if cooked turkey has spoiled is to closely inspect it before eating it. Here are some signs that turkey has gone bad and should be thrown out:
- Off odor – Turkey gives off a distinct, unpleasant odor when it starts to spoil.
- Slimy texture – The meat feels excessively mushy, slimy, or sticky.
- Discoloration – The color changes to gray, green, or black.
- Mold growth – Fuzzy mold appears on the surface.
If your leftover turkey exhibits any of those characteristics, it’s best to play it safe and discard it. When in doubt, throw it out.
Factors That Affect Turkey Shelf Life
Not all turkey leftovers stay fresh for the same amount of time. Here are some factors that can affect how long turkey keeps in the fridge:
- Storage temperature – Turkey lasts longer when stored at a consistent 40°F or below. If stored above 40°F, bacteria multiply faster.
- Cooking temperature – Cooked to the proper internal temperature of 165°F, harmful bacteria are destroyed.
- Amount of handling – The more times turkey is removed from the fridge, the greater risk of bacterial contamination from surfaces and utensils.
- Exposure to air – Storing turkey in airtight containers limits exposure to oxygen and bacteria.
For maximum freshness and safety, store turkey in sealed containers at 40°F or below and limit opening the fridge.
How to Store Leftover Turkey
Proper storage is key for preserving your turkey leftovers and reducing food waste. Here are some tips for storing cooked turkey:
- Let the turkey cool completely before refrigerating it. Divide it into smaller portions.
- Store turkey in shallow airtight containers. This prevents drying out.
- Don’t overcrowd the fridge. Too much food restricts air circulation and cooling.
- Use turkey within 3-5 days. Freeze any turkey you won’t use within that timeframe.
- When reheating, cook to an internal temperature of 165°F.
Can You Freeze Leftover Turkey?
Freezing is a great way to extend the shelf life of leftover turkey. Properly frozen turkey can safely keep for 4-6 months in the freezer. Here are some turkey freezing tips:
- Cut turkey into smaller pieces so it freezes faster. Divide drumsticks from thighs and wings.
- Wrap turkey tightly in freezer bags, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil. Remove as much air as possible.
- Label packages with contents and date. Use oldest turkey first.
- Maintain freezer temperature at 0°F or below.
- Once thawed, turkey keeps 3-5 days refrigerated.
- Turkey can be frozen thawed up to 2 times safely.
Safe Thawing of Frozen Turkey
Thawing turkey properly reduces risk of bacterial growth. Here are some safe ways to thaw frozen turkey:
- In the refrigerator: Thaw turkey slowly in the fridge 1-2 days before needed.
- In cold water: Submerge turkey in its airtight packaging in cold water, changing water every 30 minutes.
- In the microwave: Use the defrost setting if available. Cook immediately after thawing.
Never thaw turkey on the counter at room temperature. Thaw in the fridge for optimal safety and quality.
Discarding Leftover Turkey
Cooked turkey should be discarded once it shows signs of spoilage, even if the 5 day timeframe has not passed. Here are some common scenarios for discarding turkey:
- Left unrefrigerated for over 2 hours
- Stored above 40°F for over 4 hours total
- Has an off odor, color, or slimy texture
- Develops mold
- Reached day 5 after cooking
When discarding spoiled food, place it in a securely tied plastic bag before putting it in the trash to prevent cross-contamination. Wash hands, surfaces, and utensils that have contacted spoiled turkey.
How Long Can an Uncooked Turkey Be Frozen?
Raw whole turkeys that are properly frozen can have an extended shelf life compared to cooked turkey. Here are some freezer timelines for raw whole turkeys:
- Commercially frozen turkey: 1 year stored at 0°F
- Home frozen turkey: 6-12 months stored at 0°F
Raw turkey parts like drumsticks and thighs can be frozen for up to 9 months. Ground turkey and turkey cutlets keep for 3-4 months frozen.
Can You Refreeze Thawed Turkey?
Previously frozen raw turkey that has been correctly thawed in the fridge can be safely refrozen without too much loss in quality. Take these steps when refreezing turkey:
- Refreeze within 1-2 days of thawing
- Cook thawed turkey immediately if not refreezing
- Only refreeze turkey that was thawed in the fridge, not at room temperature
- Rewrap turkey tightly before returning to the freezer
Avoid refreezing turkey more than once, as the texture tends to deteriorate. Only refreeze turkey that has been kept at 40°F or below during thawing.
Can Cooked Turkey Be Refrozen?
Cooked turkey should not be refrozen once it has been thawed. The danger is that bacteria may have started growing again when the turkey was thawed. Refreezing won’t kill the bacteria. For optimal safety and quality, cook thawed turkey within 3-5 days and do not refreeze.
What Are Some Safe Ways to Use Leftover Turkey?
Leftover turkey has so many delicious possibilities besides sandwiches and casseroles. Here are some creative and safe ways to enjoy turkey for 3-5 days after Thanksgiving:
- Turkey breakfast tacos or burritos
- Turkey fried rice
- Turkey pot pie
- Turkey enchiladas
- Turkey noodle soup
- Turkey BBQ sliders
- Turkey quesadillas
- Turkey Cobb salad
When reheating any dishes containing turkey, heat to an internal temperature of 165°F. Refrigerate within 2 hours of cooking.
Can Dogs Eat Leftover Turkey?
Plain turkey meat without bones, skin, or seasonings is safe for dogs to eat in small portions. A few bites of turkey can make a tasty treat. However, there are some risks of feeding turkey to dogs:
- Bones can splinter and cause internal damage or choking hazard.
- Too much fat and skin may cause pancreatitis.
- Seasonings like onions, garlic, or chives can be toxic to dogs.
- Rich foods may upset some dogs’ stomachs.
For optimal safety, remove all bones, skin, and spices before sharing turkey with pets. Introduce new foods like turkey gradually and monitor your pet’s reaction.
Cooked turkey remains fresh for 3-5 days when properly stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or below. Look for signs of spoilage like off-colors, odors, and sliminess before eating leftovers. For maximum safety and quality, store turkey in airtight containers, limit time in the fridge to 5 days, and freeze any uneaten portions for longer term storage. With proper handling, leftovers like turkey provide the basis for all sorts of tasty and creative meals throughout the week after Thanksgiving.