Buying frozen turkeys might be the norm, but many consumers prefer to seek out fresh poultry whenever possible. The problem is, you’ll have to cook it off quickly to ensure that it remains fresh. Exactly how long can you keep a fresh turkey in the refrigerator before cooking it? Our guide will give you the answer.
How Long Can You Keep a Fresh Turkey In The Refrigerator?
Fresh turkey should keep in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. If you wait any longer, the meat might begin to show signs of spoilage. Store the bird in the coldest section of the fridge, and freeze it if you aren’t going to be able to cook it off within 48 hours.
Sell-By vs. Use-By
Don’t rely on any “sell-by” dates you might see on the turkey’s packaging. These are put in place as guidelines for the sellers. They’re not intended to be used as recommendations for the consumer.
That said, if you see a “use-by” or a “best by” date on the package, feel free to use it as a storage guideline. The turkey should keep in the refrigerator until this date as long as the package is unopened and the refrigerator temperature is set below 40 degrees. If you won’t be able to cook the turkey within that time frame, freeze it instead.
How Long Will a Fresh Turkey Keep When Refrigerated?
With proper storage, a fresh turkey can last in the fridge for up to 2 days. We would recommend cooking it off as soon as possible after bringing it home, preferably within a day.
Note that we’re referring to turkeys that you’ve purchased fresh from the store, not previously frozen turkeys that you’ve thawed in the fridge. However, the rules aren’t all that different for thawed turkeys. Once the bird has fully defrosted, you’ll have 1 to 2 days to prepare and enjoy it before it starts to deteriorate.
What Will Happen If I Wait Longer?
Storing fresh turkey for longer than 2 days will increase the risk of spoilage. The pathogens responsible for spoiled meat are different from the ones that cause food poisoning, but you’ll still want to avoid them at all costs.
When the turkey starts to go bad, it may display various warning signs, like a slimy texture or a foul, egg-like odor. You won’t necessarily get sick from eating the spoiled meat, but it won’t be anywhere near as delicious as you’d hoped.
A healthy adult might suffer from a mild upset stomach after consuming spoiled turkey. Children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised are prone to more serious illness. Therefore, if you’re serving the turkey as the centerpiece of a multi-generational celebration, there’s more risk involved.
Why Stores Can Store Turkey Longer
You might be wondering how supermarkets and butcher shops can ever turn a profit on turkey sales if the birds are going to spoil in such a short period of time. In truth, the answer is a simple one: superior refrigeration techniques.
Commercial coolers are routinely inspected for quality and receive regular maintenance as a result. It’s also easier for workers to tell precisely how cold the conditions are. With home refrigerators, the temperature rises slightly every time you open the door, which can be problematic when storing fresh poultry.
You can help to alleviate this problem by keeping the refrigerator door closed as much as possible. If you have a second refrigerator that’s large enough to store the turkey, consider using that one instead. In any case, put the bird in the back of the fridge on a lower shelf, using a pan with sides high enough to catch any juices that might drip off.
How Long Will The Turkey Last Once It’s Cooked?
Cooked poultry, including turkey, should keep for 3 to 4 days in the fridge. Make sure to keep it in a tightly sealed container, and store it in the coldest portion of the fridge. This will help it last longer, though you should still consume or freeze any leftovers within 4 days.
Note that these guidelines apply to any leftovers from turkey that you’ve prepared yourself. Deli turkey, on the other hand, can keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. That’s because the meat has been treated with additives that give it a longer shelf life.
Tips on Freezing Turkey
While it might seem counterproductive to buy a fresh turkey only to stick it in the freezer, you might have no choice if you don’t intend to cook it right away. Here’s how to store a fresh turkey in the freezer for use at a later date.
First, set aside 5 or 6 layers of high-quality plastic wrap. Wash your hands before handling any raw poultry product.
Cover the turkey in the plastic wrap, taking care not to leave any of the skin bare. That’s why you’re using several layers—to ensure that the entire surface of the bird is wrapped as tightly as possible. Otherwise, there could be freezer-burned patches on the skin, which will affect the texture when you’re ready to cook the turkey.
Store the bird in the deepest, coldest part of the freezer. For best results, thaw and cook it off within 1 year. It will keep indefinitely, but past the one-year mark, the quality may begin to deteriorate. It’s also a good idea to perform regular checks to ensure that your freezer temperature is at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
One caveat: Butterball claims that their turkey will still be of superior quality even after spending 2 years in the freezer. If you can find the Butterball brand and it fits within your budget, consider stocking up on one or more of their products. Just make sure you have enough room in your freezer before you make the purchase.
How To Freeze Cooked Turkey
Freezing leftover cooked turkey requires a similar set of guidelines. First and foremost, make sure to refrigerate any leftovers within 2 hours. Freeze the cooked turkey meat using heavy-duty zip-top freezer bags, squeezing the bags to remove as much air as possible. Label each bag with the contents and the date, and thaw within 6 months.
The Bottom Line
Plan on cooking and enjoying your frozen turkey no more than 2 days after buying it. This means that if you want to use a fresh turkey next Thanksgiving, you should arrange to pick up the bird no earlier than Tuesday.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!