On this very site 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 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.
Here’s everything 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 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 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 is turkey good in the fridge?
Cooked turkey 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.
So, how long will the rest of my Thanksgiving leftovers last?
Here's what you can expect:
- Cranberry sauce: About 2 weeks in the fridge and 2 months in the freezer.
- Stuffing: About 4 days in the fridge and a month in the freezer.
- Pies: A couple 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.
James' final piece of advice: “Trust your nose as an indicator of quality.” If leftovers smell bad, don’t eat them.
A Few Ideas for Your Thanksgiving Leftovers
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 two 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 & 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.
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