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How To Tell if Ground Turkey is Bad Before and After Cooking

Whether it’s raw or cooked, meat will only keep for so long in the fridge. This is true even if you follow all the rules for storage and preparation to the letter. That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs for spoiled meat.

Here’s how to tell if ground turkey is bad both before and after you cook it.

How To Tell if Ground Turkey is Bad

Ground turkey that’s gone bad will usually give off a strong, sulfur-like odor. It may also turn from pink to brown or gray, or feel slimy or sticky to the touch. When you suspect that your ground turkey has spoiled, throw it out immediately. Never taste any food that exhibits signs of spoilage.

What Is Ground Turkey?

Ground turkey is turkey meat that’s been fed through a meat grinder to give it a softer consistency. It can be made from either white or dark meat, but the producers generally use a blend of both types.

Small amounts of fat and skin may also be included in the mixture. This gives the ground turkey more flavor and moisture than it would have otherwise. Be sure to read the label to make sure no flavorings or other additives were used.

Ground turkey is considered a heart-healthy alternative to ground beef because it’s leaner. Most mixtures contain 93 percent meat to 7 percent fat, but if it’s made exclusively of breast meat, it could contain as little as 1 percent fat.

How Long Does Ground Turkey Keep in the Fridge?

Ground poultry products have a shorter shelf life than whole muscle cuts because more of the meat’s surface area is exposed to the air. Once you’ve brought the ground turkey home from the store, you should cook it off in three days, tops.

In fact, we would recommend buying ground turkey as soon as possible before you plan to use it. Shopping on the same day is preferable, but it should keep in the fridge overnight without any issues.

After the meat is cooked, you have a bit more time before it starts to turn the corner. Cooked ground turkey should remain fresh in the refrigerator for three to four days.

Be sure your refrigerator temperature is set below 40 degrees. When the refrigerator is kept any warmer than this, the meat will spend too long in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees. That means it will spoil more quickly.

It’s best to store meat products in the rear of the fridge, away from the door. That way, they’ll be protected from the blasts of warm air that enter the unit when the door is opened.

Finally, keep ground turkey in its original packaging until you start to cook. Wrap any leftovers tightly to minimize their exposure to the air.

How Long Can You Store Ground Turkey in the Freezer?

All meat products will keep indefinitely when stored in the freezer—at least in theory. The subzero temperatures will halt bacterial growth, so the meat will technically be safe to eat once it’s thawed.

In practice, however, the quality of the meat starts to deteriorate after a while. In the case of raw ground turkey, it’s better to defrost and cook it off within three to four months.

What if you’ve already cooked the turkey and need to use the freezer for storing leftovers? In that case, you have even less time before the freezing temps will cause the meat to dry out. Cooked ground turkey should only be frozen for two to three months.

How To Tell if Ground Turkey is Bad Before Cooking

When raw ground turkey goes bad, it’s usually obvious as soon as you open the refrigerator door.

The most common telltale sign of spoiled turkey is a foul odor reminiscent of rotten eggs. If the turkey smells off, discard it at once. For more information, see Does Ground Turkey Have a Smell?, below.

You also may be able to tell if the turkey has gone bad by inspecting the color. When it’s fresh, it’s light pink or peach. If the meat is turning gray or brown, then you should throw it out.

Fresh ground turkey will glisten slightly as a result of the natural moisture that’s present in the meat. When you touch it, feels damp and slightly tacky in your hands. It shouldn’t look slimy, nor should it feel slippery or overly sticky to the touch.

How To Tell if Cooked Ground Turkey is Bad

Again, smell is the most reliable indicator of freshness. Once the ground turkey is cooked, it will start to smell sour if it’s kept too long in the fridge. The moment you notice a sour or overly sweet smell coming from the turkey, it’s time to toss it.

The cooked meat may also gain a slimy coating when it’s spoiled. If it’s been left in the fridge for way too long, it might even turn green or moldy.

When you suspect that your cooked turkey has gone bad, throw it out right away. Don’t be tempted to taste it “just to check.” Trust your instincts. If the meat is showing signs of spoilage, even a taste of it could make you sick.

Does Ground Turkey Have a Smell?

Not really. No raw meat product should have a strongly discernible scent of its own. If you can smell it, there’s a good chance it’s already been around too long.

Since ground poultry is prone to spoiling more quickly than whole muscle cuts, it’s important to be on high alert when it comes to odor. On the plus side, once the meat has gone bad, the smell often makes it easy to tell.

What Causes the Meat To Spoil?

When ground turkey goes bad, time is the likeliest culprit. Check the use-by date before you buy the meat—if that date has gone by, it’s not a good idea to eat the turkey, even if it still looks fine.

Again, cook the ground turkey as soon as you can. Should your plans change, put the meat in the freezer instead. It takes 12 to 24 hours to defrost a pound of ground turkey in the refrigerator, so keep that in mind when you’re ready to thaw and cook the meat.

Earlier, we mentioned the importance of keeping the refrigerator set below 40 degrees. That’s because bacteria thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. If the meat is kept at these temperatures for longer than a couple of hours, it’s no longer safe to eat.

Air exposure is another common factor. When the ground turkey is exposed to air, the resulting bacteria density can be twice as high as it would be if the meat had been stored in a tightly sealed container.

Will Cooking the Ground Turkey Destroy the Bacteria?

Cooking fresh meat to a safe temperature (see below) will normally eradicate any harmful bacteria. Unfortunately, this won’t work once the turkey has gone bad.

The bacteria and microorganisms that set up camp as the meat spoils will leave behind dangerous toxins. Even if you cook the meat, these toxins will remain, causing symptoms that range from mild stomach upset to joint pain, fever and chills.

The bottom line? When you suspect that ground turkey—or any meat product—has spoiled, discard it immediately.

Recommended Cooking Temperature for Ground Turkey

Spoilage isn’t the only factor you need to worry about when it comes to ground poultry. It’s just as important to cook the meat to the safe internal temperature that’s recommended by the USDA.

Poultry products need to be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to eliminate the risk of food-borne illness. The flesh of chickens and turkeys is less dense than that of pigs and cows, so there’s a higher probability of the bacteria making its way beneath the surface.

In point of fact, all ground meat should be cooked thoroughly, and for similar reasons. The bacteria that cause food poisoning spread on the surface of the animal’s flesh. As we mentioned, it can penetrate deeper when the flesh has a lower density.

However, even ground beef and pork needs to cook to at least 160 degrees. Once the meat goes through the grinder, you can’t tell which parts of it were on the surface of the flesh—it all gets mixed together. So cooking the meat thoroughly is the only safe course.

How To Tell When Ground Turkey is Cooked

Since you need to make sure that ground turkey cooks to at least 165 degrees, a reliable instant-read meat thermometer is an essential tool to have on hand.

Cook the turkey until the thermometer probe registers 165 degrees. For turkey burgers and meat loaf, you can stop cooking at 160 degrees, since the temperature will continue to rise due to carryover cooking.

Note that if you’re browning the ground turkey “loose” in a skillet, you need to make sure the thermometer probe doesn’t touch the hot pan. For obvious reasons, this would result in an inaccurate readout.

When the turkey is fully cooked, it will lose its pink color and shiny appearance and turn white and opaque instead. There might still be a hint of pink in the middle of your turkey burgers, but as long as the meat has cooked to a safe temperature, that’s fine.

Final Thoughts

It’s a real bummer when you open a package of ground turkey—or a container of leftovers—only to discover that the meat is no longer fresh. But it’s better to recognize the signs in advance than to consume the meat and pay the price later on.

Happy grilling!