Using Thanksgiving Leftovers Safely

— Written By Patricia Burch
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I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and were able to spend time with friends and family. Thanksgiving is a time for delicious food and fellowship, and hopefully not a time where anyone gets sick from a foodborne illness. More than 46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving day and with the never-ending list of side dishes and desserts, it is by far the largest and most stressful meal many consumers prepare all year, leaving room for mistakes that can make guests sick. “Turkey and other meat and poultry may contain Salmonella and Campylobater that can lead to serious foodborne illness,” said FSIS Administrator Paul Kecker. Foodborne illness can not only occur during meal preparation, but also during storage and how food is reheated as well. Once the big meal is over, you are now faced with what to do with the leftovers. It’s important to understand these food safety rules when planning for Thanksgiving leftovers.

The first rule of thumb is to debone the turkey and refrigerate all leftovers in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking. While this may seem like a short time, bacteria that causes a food borne illness can multiply to undesirable levels on perishable food left at room temperature for longer than that. Remember, all foods contain some bacteria! It’s not a problem if we handle it properly.

Gravy, stuffing and meat need to be stored separately from each other. It will be necessary to remove the stuffing from the bird and store it in a separate container. Remember, you must debone your turkey anyway. Go ahead and put the stuffing in a separate container.

If you would like to save the turkey carcass for soup later on, that is possible. Refrigerate or freeze it in a zip-top baggie or other food safe, freezer safe container. Be sure to label it with the date before freezing.

Once you have deboned the turkey and placed it in shallow containers for later use, you will want to use it up within 3 to 4 days. Stuffing and gravy should be used within 1 to 2 days; or you should plan to freeze these foods. When reheating, make sure you reheat it properly to 165 degrees. Temperature should be taken from the middle of the dish, not the edges.

If you choose to freeze leftovers for longer storage, package them in freezer containers, paper, or heavy-duty aluminum foil. Proper wrapping will prevent “freezer burn”, those dried-out white patches on the surface of the food that affects the taste.

Be sure to label and write what it is in the package and place on the food package. Frozen leftovers should be used within 2 to 6 months for best quality.

Cooked turkey may be eaten cold, but since Thanksgiving is such a hectic day with much room for cooking error, it may be best reheated to reduce the chance of foodborne illness. When reheating your turkey in the oven, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees. Reheat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature. To keep the turkey moist and prevent it from drying out, add a little broth or water to the pan and cover.

Microwave ovens are great for heating foods quickly. However, food safety rules apply here too. When using the microwave, cover the food and rotate it for even heating. You will also need to allow some standing time to insure the food is heated through. Check the temperature and make sure it reaches 165 degrees in the middle.

For more information on food safety during the holidays, contact Sydney Johnson, Family & Consumer Sciences Agent at the Sampson County Extension office, 910-592-7161.

Turkey can be used in place of chicken for most recipes. Find your favorite casserole, soup or main dish recipe that calls for chicken and substitute cooked turkey instead. Here is a suggestion. This recipe is great for anyone, even diabetics!

Southwestern Turkey Soup

2/3 cup low-sodium beef broth

1 can (12 ounces) no-salt tomato paste

1 can (15 ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1 can (11 ounces) Mexican-style corn, drained

1 ½ cups diced cooked turkey (leftover cooked turkey works great)

3 green onions, sliced

2 to 3 Tablespoons chili powder

1 can (4 ounces) chopped green chilies

1 2/3 cups water

In a large saucepan, combine beef broth and tomato paste. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Yield: 6 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 225 Calories, 32 g. Carbohydrates, 631 mg. Sodium, 20 g. Protein, 3 g. Fat

This information was adapted from Jean Ince from The Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Arkansas System.