Smoked turkey lasts approximately two hours at room temperature, three to four days in the fridge, and indefinitely in the freezer. The same goes for any poultry, according to USDA guidelines.
Eating turkey for several days straight is a terrific way to start hating Christmas or Thanksgiving, which is why finding the best way to store and reuse your turkey is something you spare a moment to think about before you get started.
The problem is you are almost always going to end up with leftover turkey when you cook it. It’s not something you cook for yourself or even just for small portions—you’re cooking turkey to feed a big group of people and it’s probably the centerpiece.
If you somehow manage to cook the exact amount of turkey to feed everyone and have none left, congrats! You must be a cooking legend!
What’re You Going to Do with That Turkey?
Last Christmas, we cooked an absolutely massive turkey for seven people. It was so huge, that it barely fit in the pot to boil and then barely fit in the oven.
With three elderly guests and one child, we were naturally leftover with a ton of turkey for the good part of a week. It became a bit of a challenge—turkey accommodated lunch and dinner a bit too frequently.
The point of my little anecdote is that the way you might want to store your turkey could depend on how much you have (you may store it in more than one way), who’s going to eat it, and how good it’ll taste.
You may choose to store your smoked turkey in more than one way (some in the fridge, some in the freezer) and use it in several different ways—it doesn’t always need to be served with other leftovers from the same meal, it can become an entirely different meal.
How Long Can I Keep Smoked Turkey at Room Temperature?
Smoked turkey should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours, as advised by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. If you’ve left food out for longer, it is probably best to get rid of it.
Leaving food at room temperature for a lengthy period can be hazardous because bacteria can grow very quickly. So, aim to get those leftovers in the fridge by at least an hour and a half after cooking to avoid spoiling.
Room temperature is typically between 68-72 °F (20-22 °C), as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary. To prevent the build-up of bacteria, your smoked turkey should be stored in temperatures below 40 °F (4 °C), which is also advised by the USDA.
If you’re waiting for guests and the turkey is ready hours ahead of their arrival, it may be a good idea to keep it somewhere warm, like the oven. Not only will this be safer, but it will also taste nicer, though you risk losing moisture and the turkey may get dry if it is not properly covered to trap in the moisture.
How Long Can I Keep Smoked Turkey in the Fridge?
Three to four days is the longest you should keep smoked turkey in the fridge, under the assumption that your fridge should be at least 40 °F (4 °C) or lower. Wrap leftovers to prevent the build-up of bacteria. You should also remove any stuffing from inside the turkey and don’t wrap your turkey with other parts of the meal.
Before sticking your turkey in the fridge, it’s a good idea to slice it into smaller portions. This will cool it down faster and prevent the build-up of bacteria. Furthermore, this will save you fridge space and make it easier to finish it over time. You can even cut these smaller portions into meal sizes to make them easier to cook. Bones can also be disregarded to save further fridge space.
You might also be interested to know that you can stick the turkey directly in the fridge after cooking, you don’t necessarily have to wait for it to cool down. That said, it is easier when it’s not piping hot.
How Long Can I Keep Smoked Turkey in the Freezer?
You can keep smoked turkey in the freezer for as long as you like, though, three to four months is probably the absolute maximum you will want to store smoked turkey in the freezer as it will begin to lose moisture and flavor. Don’t expect reheated turkey to taste like it just came out of the oven.
Before freezing, it may be worth asking yourself if it’s really worth it—are you going to remember that turkey at the bottom of the freezer three months from now? Is there a chance you might ‘rediscover’ it, feel not sure about it, and throw it away? If that’s the case, find another way to reuse it.
Frozen turkey also comes with an additional step—it needs to be thawed before reusing. The USDA proposes three methods, but the safest way is leaving it in the fridge, though, this takes the longest. You can also thaw a frozen turkey in cold water or the microwave which is much faster.
How Can I Keep Smoked Turkey Leftovers Tasting Their Best?
Proper storage will help keep your smoked turkey leftovers tasting the best. Separate your turkey from other leftovers and keep them tightly wrapped, as explained above, and it will help lock in flavor. However, it might not be so much how you store your leftover turkey and more so how you season it afterward—salt, pepper, and sauces can go a long way when it comes to revitalizing leftovers.
Lindsay D. Mattison of Taste of Home recommends reheating turkey at 300 °F (148 °C) because it’s not too hot that all the moisture escapes but still hot enough so that it doesn’t take hours. Mattison also recommends “Place your leftover portions in aluminum foil and spoon a few spoonfuls of gravy or chicken stock over the meat”—this way you can make sure your smoked turkey doesn’t get dry.
You can also add your leftover turkey to other meals and pair it with other flavors to make entirely different dishes. (Eating leftover turkey by itself, even with other leftovers from the same meal, will get boring quickly.) BBC Good Food has a great list of 20 leftover recipes for turkey. Five that stand out include:
- Turkey tikka masala—if you’re looking for something Indian.
- Christmas pizza—make use of all your Xmas leftovers with this one.
- Christmas leftover sandwich—this one might be a bit much for some, but it’s probably the best way to make use of all those leftovers, as well as the turkey.
- Korean rice pot—for an East Asian taste.
- Moroccan turkey salad—for those looking to cut down on calories after the holidays.
Many of these choices are a fantastic way to forget that you’re eating leftovers from Christmas or Thanksgiving by adding a more international flavor. But if you want something super simple, you could always just make a turkey and mayo sandwich (no one will judge!).
What’s the Best Way to Store Smoked Turkey?
Think about what you want to do with that turkey. If you can gobble it all up in three-four days, refrigerate it. If you’re thinking of eating it over the long term, then maybe you should freeze it. Either way, cut it into smaller portions, remove bones and stuff and wrap it tightly within two hours and store it at a temperature lower than 40 °F (4 °C).
Be wise and give some away if it’s too much. You don’t need to eat turkey for several days straight—if you’ve cooked for guests and there’s a lot left, force them to take some! But if you’ve got no choice, there’s a lot you can do with smoked turkey leftovers.