Asking Google “how-to freeze turkey” this holiday season? Katie Workman, the creator behind The Mom 100, created a guide to prepping your extra turkey for the freezer. Use it over the holidays or any time of year when turkey is on the menu and leftovers are on the to-do list.
First, when possible, slice the meat from the bone, and use the bones to make stock. This will allow you to pack your leftover turkey more compactly and reduce the amount of air inside the container. If you want to freeze leftover whole turkey pieces, see below.
Any turkey that is not eaten at the original meal should be sealed up and refrigerated within two hours of serving. If your turkey has sat out for significantly longer, it won’t keep as well and may not be food safe.
If your turkey has been properly handled, you can refrigerate and eat it for up to four days. If you are planning to freeze it, it’s best to freeze it within one day of cooking for optimal texture and taste. However, leftover turkey can be frozen after three days and it will be fine. If your turkey has been in the fridge for one, two or three days, you are good to freeze it, as long as it was in a well-sealed container and hasn’t dried out.
I like to use freezer-proof zipper top bags for freezing turkey, because you can really press out all of the excess air before sealing them. The zipper-top bag packages marked specifically for the freezer are thicker than regular zipper-top bags and definitely better for freezing. Also consider reusable freezer-proof bags.
If you want to use a freezer-proof container, that’s fine. You want to make sure the turkey is pretty well packed in, again to reduce the amount of air in the container which can cause freezer burn.
Whatever container you use, please make sure to label it with a permanent marker. Write the kind of turkey you are freezing (e.g., breast meat), the date you are freezing it, and if you like, the amount in the container (e.g., 4 cups turkey or 1 pound turkey).
Leftover turkey freezes well for up to six months if properly handled, packed and frozen within three days of the original preparation. However, I like to try and use it within three months for best flavor and texture, and to avoid the possibility of freezer burn.
Freezer burn happens when air gets into contact with food. Make sure you leave as little extra room as possible in the container or bag.
If you have some leftover legs, wings or thighs that you want to freeze on the bone, just make sure to wrap them very well in plastic wrap. Then slide them into a freezer-proof zip-top bag, press out any excess air, label the bag and freeze. I prefer bags for this as it’s easier to press out extra air. But do make sure to wrap them tightly first. To do this, get thicker plastic wrap specially designed for the freezer if you are a regular freezer of food!
The best way is to place the bag or container in the fridge for at least one day, up to two days if you are defrosting a larger quantity of turkey. You can also use the microwave if the container is small enough to rotate inside, allowing it to defrost evenly. Every microwave is different, so you should check your defrost setting to make sure you are doing it in the correct way. Some microwaves let you plan your defrosting according to weight, while others have more specific settings.
DO NOT THAW TURKEY OR ANY MEAT AT ROOM TEMPERATURE! This can allow bacteria to form, which can be dangerous, especially for people who are very young, very old, or immunocompromised in any way.
If you are using the turkey in a soup, stew or casserole, you might not have to defrost it first. Read the recipe, and see if it makes sense to add it still frozen. This will also possibly help keep it moist and juicy. If it’s heating up in chili, for instance, the liquid and other ingredients will help moisten the turkey as it defrosts.
The concern with turkey, as every turkey lover knows, is that it can dry out when reheated. I like to put the turkey in a baking pan, add a small amount of turkey or chicken broth, cover the pan with foil, and heat it gently in a 300°F oven until it is warmed through. You can pour off any remaining liquid from the pan.
You can also reheat turkey in the microwave, using the carousel tray. Put the turkey in a microwave-safe container, add a bit of broth, and cover the turkey with a damp paper towel. Make sure the tray can rotate in the microwave – if it’s too big, use the oven.
Note From the Author – “Lucky you, with leftover turkey! That means you made enough for everyone to their meal, hopefully had some next-day sandwiches, and STILL had extra. Smart. I always plan to make a larger turkey than necessary because there are so many things to make with leftover turkey.” Katie Workman, The Mom 100
For more information on putting together your Thanksgiving meal, head over to Thanksgiving 101.