Turkey is a delicious option for lunch or dinner, and many people turn to it when they’re trying to eat healthily. The fat content in turkey is much less than beef, which is why it’s a great substitute when making burgers, meatloaf, or any recipe that calls for ground meat.
Like other meats, turkey freezes well. But how long can you let it sit out before a problem occurs?
Generally speaking, turkey should not sit out longer than 2 hours whether it is cooked, frozen, or raw. The United States Department of Agriculture set this time as an advisory due to the risk of bacterial growth, which can lead to food-borne illnesses.
How Long Can Cooked Turkey Sit Out?
Cooked turkey can be deceiving. It’s easy to assume that raw turkey is a more considerable risk when it comes to leaving it on your counter, but the fact is, unsafe bacteria can grow on any meat if it reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
The idea is to get it into the refrigerator before it goes bad. When a turkey sits too long at room temperature, you run the risk of letting bacteria and giving yourself and your dinner guests food poisoning.
How Long Can Raw or Frozen Turkey Sit Out?
After reading the paragraphs above, you may be thinking, “A whole frozen turkey is going to take much longer than 2 hours to defrost.” That is a true statement.
Still, the last thing you want to do is to let it thaw on your counter because the outside will reach that 40˚F danger zone while the inside is still softening.
If you do this, you run the risk of ruining your turkey and Thanksgiving. Raw turkey is the same.
Don’t let it sit out more than two hours, or you run the risk of bacterial infection.
How Long Can a Turkey Sit Out Before Cooking?
Since the USDA recommends not to let turkey, raw, frozen, or cooked, sit out for more than two hours, we recommend taking your turkey out a half hour before you cook it.
That way, it won’t be icy when it goes into the oven, but you are far below the danger line. If your turkey is in the freezer, there are several ways to thaw it safely.
In the Fridge
Thawing meat in the refrigerator is a great option. The general rule of thumb is to allow twenty-four hours defrost time for every five-pound of meat. So a twenty-pound turkey will take four days to defrost in your refrigerator.
This may seem like a hassle, but you can easily plan around it and make space at the bottom of the fridge for your bird to relax while it thaws.
Safety Tip: Always defrost your meat on a plate, and set it on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Meat juices will drip on everything below it and can contaminate your appliance and groceries.
In a Cold Water
You have a frozen turkey and realize there isn’t time to let it sit in the fridge for days. How do you defrost it?
Cold water is a safe option for thawing meat of any kind, but there are rules you must follow to avoid putting you and the health of those you love in jeopardy.
- The water must be cold. Not room temperature and not hot. Tap water at the coldest setting is fine.
- You must change the water every half hour.
If you follow these two simple rules, you can defrost your turkey much quicker. The cold water method takes about a half-hour per pound, so a large bird will require planning.
You will need a container big enough to do the job. A five-gallon bucket will work well, and you can pick one up at any hardware store cheaply.
I also advise setting it all up in a place where you can dump the water and refill it with fresh cold water.
Remember, when you dump that water, it will be swimming with residue from raw meat, and the whole area needs to be cleaned up and sanitized well once you are done.
The tub in your laundry area or bathroom would be fine. Outside will work if you have a drain for the water.
Sometimes, I let meat defrost in a brine, which is a great way to keep the moisture in your bird. If you are defrosting via the coldwater method, try brine for the two last water changes.
A brine is roughly a ¼ cup salt and a ¼ cup brown sugar for one gallon of cold water. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water before putting it over the turkey.
Skip The Defrost
Did you know that a frozen turkey will cook fine in the oven? Well, it will, and there isn’t much to it. All you do is preheat the oven to 325˚F, put your turkey on a roasting rack, and put it in the oven.
You won’t be able to brine it or put seasoned butter under its skin, which are beautiful ways to lock in moisture and flavor your turkey.
But, you can use salt and pepper, brush it with seasoned melted butter as it thaws, and continue to douse it with the juices from your pan.
Caution! Never deep-fry a frozen turkey. The ice will become steam when it hits the hot oil and cause the contents to expand. The oil will bubble over, and if that oil hits the flame under the deep fryer, it can explode. Never grill a frozen turkey either. Experts all agree, roasting a frozen bird is the safest option.
Ways You Should Never Defrost A Turkey
Now that you know the best ways to defrost your holiday bird, here are some methods people have considered that are not safe.
No Hot Water Bath
While cold water works wonders with frozen meats, hot water is the exact opposite. Not only will it put the outer portions of your turkey at that 40˚F point you’re trying to avoid.
The hot water will accelerate the multiplication of harmful bacteria as well. On top of that, you’ll precook the skin and outside, which ruins the flavor.
No Blow Dryers
For all the same reasons, you shouldn’t give your frozen bird a hot bath. You shouldn’t use a blow dryer to speed up the process. The only thing it will do is put that meal into that danger zone.
How Long Can Turkey Sit Out After Cooking?
The 2-hour limit advised by the USDA goes for all meat, whether it’s frozen, raw, or cooked. So you don’t want to leave a cooked turkey out any longer.
But that doesn’t mean you should start carving into a freshly roasted bird the moment you take it out of the oven.
Before eating, you want to let your turkey rest. The moments after roasting are one of the most critical steps to creating a fantastic meal.
You can serve a delectable turkey and get it in the fridge within that two-hour window if you follow the steps below.
- When you insert your meat thermometer, make sure the internal temperature of your bird is 165˚F. Then you can take the bird out of the oven.
- Cover the turkey with foil and let it sit for 30-40 minutes before carving. This is the best time to make the gravy with the pan juices and whip your potatoes.
- Carve the turkey and set it out for your meal.
If you follow those tips, there is plenty of time to get the leftovers in the fridge by the 2-hour limit. We’ve already explained the dangers of letting turkey sit out at room temp.
While you may be tempted to start carving, that rest period will let the natural juices of the bird set into the meat, and your turkey will be moist and the talk of the holiday.
How Long Can A Turkey Sandwich Sit Out?
No matter if you’re first cutting into a freshly baked bird or using your Thanksgiving Day leftovers to make a tasty snack, turkey cooked, raw, or frozen should never sit out longer than the 2-hour window advised by the USDA.
That said, when it comes to leftover turkey, it’s easy to avoid that danger zone of 40˚F. All you need to do is keep your turkey in the fridge and only take it out when using it.
As for the sandwich, if you can’t get to it for a couple of hours, find a refrigerator to keep it in and only take it out when you’re ready to eat. If you’re the type who likes to eat while working, be aware of that window and try to finish your lunch in time.
Types Of Bacteria That Can Grow On Meat Left Out Too Long
Knowing that harmful bacteria can grow on your turkey or any other meat if left out longer than two hours is enough to make someone take notice.
If you’re interested in the types of bacteria that can grow on meat and cause food poisoning, here they are.
This type of infection is typically found in the intestinal tract. People commonly contract salmonella through food or water that has been tainted. Common symptoms include nausea, abdominal cramps, fever, headache, chills, and others.
Also known as listeriosis, it can become a severe infection and cause some of the same symptoms as salmonella. More importantly, pregnant women who contract listeria can cause the fetus to experience an illness that can be deadly.
More than one million people across the United States come down with campylobacter every year. It’s typically contracted through undercooked meat and water that hasn’t been treated properly.
The symptoms are similar to those we listed above, and complications like irritable bowel syndrome can arise due to infection.
Staphylococcus Aureus (Staph)
Here we have another gastrointestinal illness caused by bacterial grown on meat left out too long.
While the symptoms are the same, the unique thing about a Staph infection is contagious and can move from human to human.
Escherichia Coli (E. coli)
Many of us have heard of E. coli because we are likely to hear about it on the news when there’s an outbreak.
E. coli exposure comes from food or water contaminated with the bacteria, and general symptoms like cramping in the stomach, nausea, and vomiting start three to four days after someone has been exposed.
When it comes to turkey or any meat product, we highly advise you to get it back into the fridge within that two-hour limit. As you can see, there is more to risk by not putting it away than keeping on top of it.
Food safety at home is essential to your family’s health. And safety in the kitchen leads to great meals and unforgettable experiences.
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My name is Keren Tayler. I am a stay-at-home mama to three lovely girls, Sarah + Rachel + Hannah. Prior to becoming a mom, I had a successful career in the accounting field, steps away from becoming a CPA. I decided to give up on my career in order to raise my own kids (as opposed to letting a nanny do it, no judgment here :)) I learned a lot and I love sharing it with other moms. Along the way, I also became a Certified Food Handler.