How long are Thanksgiving leftovers actually good for?

And other Thanksgiving leftovers questions, answered

Published November 24, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

 (Bobbi Lin / Food52)
(Bobbi Lin / Food52)

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It's a few hours, maybe a day or two at most after Turkey Day, and you're hungry for Thanksgiving leftovers. Or maybe you're not hungry but you're craving pumpkin pieAnd turkey. And a side dish or two such as mashed potatoes and stuffing and green bean casserole and Grandma's corn casserole and cornbread and leftover cranberry sauce. You know, the fixin's. So you go to the fridge or the freezer to grab a storage container packed to the brim with turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner and wonder, "is this safe to eat?" How long do leftover turkey and other Thanksgiving leftovers last?

On Food52, we've dedicated a contest and many, many posts to tips on how to let all those Thanksgiving leftovers live their best lives — because eating leftover Thanksgiving turkey for an entire week straight can wear down even the most avid of poultry fans.

But we also turned to James Briscione, the Director of Culinary Development at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), just to make sure our freezer and storage methods for all our great leftovers were sound. Learn how to store Thanksgiving leftovers to keep them safe indefinitely . . . or until they all run out (whichever comes first).

Storing Thanksgiving leftovers

If it's still Tukey Day and you're getting ready to pack up your leftover Thanksgiving turkey, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reminds hosts to remember the "two-hour rule" for food safety. According to the USDA, "all perishable items should be refrigerated within two hours of coming out of the oven or refrigerator." The reason is that after two hours, perishable food such as turkey and stuffing enter what's known as the Danger Zone, where foodborne bacteria can quickly multiply and cause the food to become unsafe to eat. "If foods have been left out at room temperature for more than two hours, discard items to prevent foodborne illness," says the USDA, per their website.

How to freeze Thanksgiving leftovers

If you don't think you're going to eat leftover cranberry sauce or apple pie right away (First of all, who are you? Please come forward and explain yourself), you may want to place them in freezer bags or storage containers to store for months to come. James' advice is to be realistic — and not just freeze for freezing's sake. This boils down to keeping fresh what you can and freezing things that take to cold well, like purées, soups, sauces, and anything with a higher liquid content.

As for what not to freeze, this includes starches, like potatoes and cooked vegetables. The one exception is dinner rolls, which can easily be frozen, as long as they are stored in a freezer-safe plastic bag in a single layer. When frozen, the water inside starch turns to crystal and breaks the cells, drastically altering its texture. "Even mashed potatoes will lose so much water out of their structure. They'll be very dry and unappealing," James says. No super-dry starches. Got it. You also shouldn't freeze soups or purées made with cream, as the dairy won't reheat properly. It'll sort of curdle and won't blend into a luscious liquid again. However, pure vegetable purées such as butternut squash or carrot soup, plus stocks and broths, that don't contain any cream can be frozen.

How long is turkey good in the fridge? 

Leftover Thanksgiving turkey that is fully cooked will last in the fridge for about 3 to 4 days. As for the freezer, the lifespan of your leftover turkey depends on the quality of said freezer. "If you have a really good freezer that maintains a temp of 0°F or below, it's indefinite," James says. If the temperature doesn't waver, the food stays safe, essentially.

However, here's the bad news: Most consumer freezers aren't able to maintain temperatures of 0°F or below. They often don't close solidly and, with frequent opening and shutting, the temperature fluctuates. In this case, keep your leftover turkey in the freezer for 6 months max and then discard it to avoid food poisoning.

So, how long will the rest of my Thanksgiving leftovers last? 

Back to those other delicious Thanksgiving staples like buttery biscuits, cooked vegetables, and pies, pies, and more pies. As a rule of Thumb, the USDA says to use the Monday after Thanksgiving as a reminder that it is the last day you can safely eat leftovers. Ahead, find out how long are Thanksgiving leftovers good for.

  • Cranberry sauce: About 2 weeks in the fridge and 2 months in the freezer.
  • Stuffing: About 4 days in the refrigerator and a month in the freezer.
  • Pies: A couple of months in the freezer.
  • Mashed potatoes: Don't freeze these! See why above; instead, make cakes or soup.
  • Cooked vegetables, including green bean casserole: We echo the "don't freeze" sentiment of the mashed potatoes.
  • Bread, like rolls: About 3 months in the freezer. How long they'll stay fresh out of the freezer depends on the kind of bread.

But wait, what about the gravy — how long do dairy-based gravies last?

The problem with dairy-based gravies is that they don't take well to freezing. The dairy, when thawed, has a tendency to separate (this isn't the case with stock-based gravy; see here). If you have lots of leftover dairy-based gravy and don't want it to go to waste, your best choice for taste and safety is to 1) Keep it in the fridge. 2) Every 3 days, take it out and bring it back to a boil. 3) Let it cool properly, over a bowl of ice. And 4) stick it back in the fridge. It'll last for a week (or more!) this way.

Bringing the gravy back to a boil kills off bacteria. However, James stresses, how you cool the gravy is very, very important. You want it to cool quickly — hence, the ice bath. The longer the gravy spends out of the fridge, the greater the likelihood of bacteria growth.

If you've defrosted something, but don't use it all, can you refreeze it? Does this pose a safety danger?

You can, but it's not ideal. You're just increasing the moisture loss in that freeze-thaw cycle.

As for safety, "Bacteria isn't really a concern then if you're thawing it properly," James says. Thawing food properly means that prior to cooking you're not allowing it to go above 40°F, when bacteria begins to multiply — fast. To thaw food safely, there are two options (there's also the microwave, however this really warrants a whole other safety-related post): in the refrigerator and in cold water. To thaw in the refrigerator, be sure to plan ahead because it's going to take a while (overnight, most likely, depending on what you're thawing). The quicker option is to submerge your food (in its freezer bag, of course) in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes.

What's the best way to prevent freezer burn?

First things first, James says: You want to get it frozen as quickly as possible. But at the same time, you don't want to put warm things in the freezer. This can increase the internal temperature of the freezer and actually start to slightly defrost what's already in there. Secondly, you want to minimize the exposure to air. James suggests storing food in freezer bags.

Is there any special scrap/extra seasonal food I can be saving to use next year? Like, is it safe to freeze leftover cranberries for 12 months?

Again, James says, this comes down to the quality of your freezer. For most commercial freezers, the answer would be no. It just doesn't stay cold enough to keep food for that long (see the reasons above).

Also: "Well, why? Why do you want to keep it that long?" James says. Good point. Might we suggest these Cranberry Cookie Bars, then?

What's the worst or scariest thing you can do in terms of food safety with leftovers?

"Probably the worst thing you can do is fall asleep on the couch and leave things sitting on the counter," James says. Allowing food to sit out for 3 to 4 hours at room temperature is dangerous territory in terms of bacteria growth.

Conversely, the faster you can get things chilled, the safer your leftovers are. Instead of waiting until after dinner to start storing things, James suggests to start chilling as you go. So, when you carve the turkey, put half of it in the fridge to get it chilled as quickly as possible. The same goes for everything, really: Put what you think people are going to eat into a bowl or onto a serving platter and cool the rest.

How to reheat Thanksgiving leftovers 

We talked about this a little bit in the context of gravy, but what's the best way to reheat things like slices of pie, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and of course, turkey? According to the USDA, when reheating in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange any food evenly in a covered microwave safe glass or ceramic dish and add some liquid if needed (this is a great time to use up extra turkey stock). Microwaves often have cold spots, so check the internal temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer. It will obviously take longer to heat up denser foods such as turkey and stuffing, whereas dinner rolls, roasted vegetables, and gravy will heat up quickly.

James' final piece of advice: "Trust your nose as an indicator of quality." If leftovers smell bad, don't eat them.

* * *

Thanksgiving leftover recipes

If you don't want to just reheat a plate of Thanksgiving leftovers or make a sandwich (with Monica Geller's signature "moist maker" gravy-soaked slice of bread, too, of course), here are some other recipes that make use of roast turkey and side dishes. There's a genius twist on a turkey pot pie that uses precooked shredded turkey breast (though feel free to use both the light and dark meat), plus fresh veggies like cremini mushrooms, leeks, carrots, and herbs. For dessert, skip a slice of pie and bake a chocolate cake using mashed potatoes. Yes, you heard that right. Mashed potatoes, people! They make chocolate cakes miraculously moist and fudgy. You can thank recipe developer janeofmanytrade for that invention.

1. Turkey Pot Pie for Another Day

Leftover turkey is pretty much a given after Thanksgiving, but even the most ardent turkey fans probably don't want to eat it for days and days on end after the holiday. A very tasty solution: Whip up a few of these turkey pot pies, freeze them for up to 2 months, and bake 'em in the oven when you need a cozy, comforting dinner on the fly.

2. Pull-Apart Thanksgiving Leftover Stuffed Bread

This fluffy pull-apart bread welcomes all your Thanksgiving leftovers, from cubed turkey to mashed potatoes to stuffing. Serve 'em warm with butter or — our favorite — with leftover cranberry sauce or gravy.

3. Micki's Turkey, Cranberry and Cream Cheese Comfort Sandwich

It doesn't get more classic than a turkey leftovers sandwich, doused with cranberry sauce. This version does offer a fresh few twists, however, with the addition of cream cheese (you could also use mashed potatoes), avocado, tomato, and vegetable sprouts.

4. Cranberry Cookie Bars

We can't think of a better use for extra cranberry sauce — aside from, ahem, that turkey sandwich — than these crumble-topped cookie bars. Calling for just six ingredients (all holiday baking staples, like cinnamon, butter, and flour), another bonus of these cookies is that they come together in a snap.

5. Chocolate–Mashed Potato Cake with Ganache

The secret to the moistest-ever cake? Mashed potatoes! Yep, that's right — your leftover mash (make sure it doesn't have garlic or other strong herbs) is just the thing your chocolate cakes have been missing.

By Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

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Food Food52 Holidays How-to Leftovers Recipes Thanksgiving