After everyone has eaten all the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pie that they can, having leftover turkey is almost a guarantee. There are critical temperature guidelines for storing and reheating leftovers safely. We have all the thermal tips you need, and a simple recipe application.
After a full day of Black Friday shopping, you want a meal that’s easy to prepare, and utilizing your leftover turkey is the way to go! Just be sure to prepare your leftovers safely.
Food Safety is a Function of Time & Temperature
Once your turkey and side dishes are finished cooking, foods can reach unsafe levels of bacteria growth. When the food begins to cool, it enters what’s known as the temperature danger zone (40-140°F [4-60°C]). At the start of your Thanksgiving meal, be mindful of how long your turkey has been at room temperature after removing from the oven.
How long can cooked food be safely held at room temperature?
Two hours is the rule. Leftovers that have been out at room temperature more than two hours (whether they’re hot or cold) should be discarded. If eating outside in temperatures above 90°F (32°C), safely store leftovers within 1 hour.
Bacteria in food left out for more than two hours double in number every 20 minutes, and some bacteria make a poison or toxin that can make you ill, hence the term “food poisoning.” —Diane Van, Food Safety Education Staff Deputy Director, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
Chilling and Storing Leftovers
➤ Chill Leftovers Rapidly & Keep Them Refrigerated
To help bring food temperatures down quickly for safe storage, cut solids into smaller pieces, or separate liquid leftovers such as soups in several small containers rather than one large container. The more exposed surface area will allow heat energy to dissipate more quickly. Tightly wrap them in airtight containers. Air tightness helps retain moisture, keeps out bacteria, and helps prevent the stored food from absorbing other odors in the refrigerator.
☼ Safety Tip: Label the Leftovers
After packaging leftovers, label them with the name of the contents and the date the food was made. This way you’ll not only know what’s in the mystery container but whether or not it’s still safe to eat.
Q: How long can I keep the leftover turkey in the fridge?
A: 3 to 4 days.
Q: How long can the leftovers be stored in the freezer?
A: 3 to 4 months.
➤ Reheating Leftovers Safely
The more times leftover food is chilled and reheated, the more opportunities it has for bacterial growth in the temperature danger zone. Bacteria can grow exponentially during chilling and reheating.
For this reason chilling and reheating needs to be done very quickly, and should not be done multiple times. Leftovers must be quickly reheated to a temperature of 165°F (74°C) to reach a safe level of pasteurization.
How to Use the Leftovers
➤ Turkey Chili
Leftover turkey can be eaten cold, or cooked and used in recipes. A great application for leftover turkey is in a soup, stew, or chili. Why? Because soups are typically boiled or simmered, and the boiling point surpasses the food safe temperature of 165°F (74°C) that your leftovers need to reach. We used leftovers from a smoked turkey to make this turkey chili. The smoky flavor from the turkey was perfect for this application, and it’s a great quick dinner recipe for the day after Thanksgiving when you don’t feel like preparing a complicated meal.
➤ Thermal Tip: Just because the liquid in the chili is simmering doesn’t mean that all the beans, vegetables, and meat are all at the same high temperature. At one point while making our chili, while the liquid was simmering, most of the meat had only reached temperatures in the range of 145-150°F (63-66°C). Keep track of the temperatures reached before serving.
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 2 cups chopped onion
- 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped fine
- 2 Tbsp. chili powder
- 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
- 2 15-oz. cans kidney beans, drained
- 3 15-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 cup turkey or chicken stock
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 Tbsp. sea salt, plus more if desired to taste
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 3-4 cups shredded, cooked turkey meat
- Shredded cheese, chopped scallions, and sour cream (optional garnish)
- In a large pot or dutch oven, saute the onions, peppers, and garlic over medium-high heat. Cook until golden and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the spices and cook for a minute or two longer. Add more oil if needed.
- Add tomatoes, beans, stock and the cooked turkey. Bring the mixture to a simmer and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the chili reaches at least 165°F (74°C) throughout. To spot-check the temperature, stir the chili well and place the probe in the middle of the depth of the liquid. Also, check the internal temperature of some of the largest pieces of meat by piercing them with the tip of your probe.
- You may be surprised to see temperatures below the boiling point, and even below 165°F (74°C) when the chili is simmering. That’s because the liquid is simmering, but the solid foods in the mixture have not heated through yet. Continue to simmer until all the liquid and solid ingredients are at an even simmering temperature (212°F [100°C]).
- Before serving, season with salt and pepper to taste. The chili can be kept refrigerated for 2 days, or frozen for up to 2 months.
Safely Handling Leftover Turkey At a Glance:
- Eat cooked food held at room temperature within 2 hours
- Quickly chill to 40°F (4°C) or below
- Store 3-4 days refrigerated
- Store 3-4 months frozen
- Thaw frozen leftovers gently in the refrigerator
- Cook quickly to at least 165°F (74°C)
Have confidence in the safety of your leftovers after turkey day by always cooking the food to the right temperature. Super-fast, accurate readings with a Thermapen Mk4 make it easy.