Store holiday leftovers properly to avoid food-borne illness

Holiday meal leftovers have almost as many traditions as the meals themselves. From turkey salad sandwiches to turkey tetrazzini, cooks want the leftovers for their traditional holiday meals to be as good, and as safe, as the feast itself.

Renee Boyer, consumer food-safety specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension, recommends putting leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer soon after a holiday meal to avoid temperatures that promote bacteria growth and turn food stale. As a general rule, plan to refrigerate leftovers within two hours of when the food is put on the table.

“The sooner you store leftovers, the better,” Boyer said. While the turkey is at room temperature, approximately 72 degrees F, it is in the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees F. This is the temperature range in which bacteria can grow. The cooler temperature of the refrigerator, 35 to 40 degrees F, slows down metabolic processes and therefore slows the growth of harmful bacteria.

To keep turkey leftovers at their best, remove the meat from the bone and put the turkey into the refrigerator to lower the temperature. To make it easier to serve later, separate the turkey into portions of the appropriate size to serve to your family, package it, and freeze it. For best results, wrap the turkey in small, airtight packages or store in plastic containers. Id you do not plan to use the leftovers soon, Boyer recommends that you freeze it immediately. Turkey leftovers can be used for casseroles, soups, burgers, and sandwiches.

“Salads, gravies, vegetables, and other cooked dishes should be stored in smaller, shallow containers so they can be cooled quickly in the refrigerator or freezer,” Boyer said.

Labeling leftover packages with the date they were frozen is helpful for later use. Refrigerated turkey and gravy should be used within three or four days; stuffing and prepared salads within one or two days. Frozen turkey should be used within four months. Turkey frozen in broth can be used within six months.

“Reheat leftovers, including stuffing, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F,” Boyer said. “Gravies should be reheated to a rolling boil.”

A previous story has details about the proper way to roast a holiday turkey. The most important instruction to follow is to heat the turkey until its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F on a meat thermometer. Virginia Cooperative Extension also has resources on safely deep-fat frying a turkey.

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