Turkey is probably the most important and emblematic dish on Thanksgiving Day, although it’s unclear exactly how that came to be. The consensus seems to be that the “wildfowl” mentioned in the chronicles of the first Thanksgiving meal was actually a reference to wild turkey, though it could have also been a goose or a duck. We could fill several pages talking about the origins of this tradition, but I guess that’s not why you’re here! Sometimes, in a festive mood, you may prepare too much turkey. And if you feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of turkey left, you may likely think about these questions. Can you freeze leftover turkey? How long can you keep leftover turkey in the fridge?
Yes, you can freeze leftover turkey. If you want to preserve it for more than 4 days, then you absolutely must! Moreover, it’s not really that hard nor much different from the way you usually freeze other leftover meats such as cooked chicken.
Probably the hardest part about freezing leftover turkey is finding the right time to do so. After all, in the middle of a Thanksgiving meal, it’s very easy to have food sitting on the table for hours exposed to bacterial growth. Since it’s generally not recommended to leave food at room temperature for more than 2 hours before freezing, you should be able to plan ahead of time and make sure that you have all the necessary tools handy to store your turkey leftovers. After making sure that everyone has a filled belly, go back into the kitchen, separate the portions that you plan to eat during the week and grab the ones you’re going to freeze, separate the meat from the bones, cut it into tiny pieces so that it doesn’t take too long to freeze, flash-freeze them on a baking sheet for about one hour. Next, toss the frozen pieces in airtight bags or containers, preferably in single-serving sizes. Finally, stow them in the freezer.
In general, cooked poultry is able to preserve most of its juicy texture after freezing. However, you need to make sure that no air was left inside the containers as you sealed it, otherwise, freezer burn will ensue, ruining your entire turkey. Also, the quality starts to deteriorate over time albeit stored the right way, so keep track of the time it’s left sitting in the freezer.
Constant changes in temperature will affect the overall texture of the meat, so it’s not ordinarily recommended to refreeze it after thawing unless you really have to. If you thawed it in the fridge and did not leave it out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, then you can safely refreeze it within 3 days.
In the fridge, leftover turkey can last around 4 days at a temperature of 40º F or lower. It will spoil if it exceeds that period, so you must throw it out.
In the freezer, it depends. After 2 months you might notice that the quality starts to take a bit of a hit in some cases, but leftover turkey can still be in acceptable conditions for up to 6 months in the freezer with temperatures set to 0º F or below. After that time, the leftover turkey will drastically decrease in quality.
In this regard, turkey is not that different from other poultry. It’s always safer to thaw the leftover turkey in the fridge overnight. But you can alternatively submerge the unopened containers in cold water to thaw it faster, though it takes a little more work since you have to keep an eye on the water temperature and change it every once in a while. Lastly, you can thaw it in the microwave using the defrost function. Some people claim that thawing in the fridge prevents the turkey from drying out when compared to other defrosting techniques, since the moisture tends to be absorbed more uniformly.
If you wish to add the leftover turkey to recipes such as soups, broths, stews, or casseroles, then it’s not really necessary to thaw the portions. Simply grab the containers, open them and pour the contents into the pot or saucepan.