How long do Thanksgiving leftovers actually last?
On this very site we've dedicated a contest and many, many posts with solutions for how to let all those Thanksgiving leftovers live their best lives—because eating turkey for an entire week straight can ware on 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.
Here's what you need to know to help you safely store those Thanksgiving leftovers:
What should I freeze?
James' advice is to be realistic—and not just freeze for freezing's sake. This boils down to keeping what you can fresh and freezing things that take to cold well, like purées, soups, sauces, and anything with a higher liquid content.
As for what to not freeze, this includes starches, like potatoes, and cooked vegetables. 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.
How long does cooked turkey actually last?
It'll keep for about 3 to 4 days in the fridge. As for the freezer, the lifespan of your turkey depends on the quality of said freezer. "If you have a really good freezer that maintains a temp of 0 degrees 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 degrees or below. They often don't close solidly and, with frequent opening and shutting, the temperature fluctuates. In this case, keep your turkey in the freezer 6 months max.
So, how long will the rest Thanksgiving leftovers last?
Here's what you can expect:
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. cool it 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 do not use it all, can you refreeze it? And 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.
And, as for safety, "Bacteria isn't really a concern then if you're thawing it properly," James says. Thawing food properly means, prior to cooking, 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 thing's first, James says, you want to get it frozen as quickly as possible, but, at the same time, don't 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.
James' final piece of advice:
"Trust your nose as an indicator of quality." If leftovers smell bad, don't eat them.