Turkey leftovers: How long is too long in the refrigerator?

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(NEXSTAR) – From sandwiches to Cobb salads, oft-overlooked recipes for leftover turkey on Black Friday abound, but just how long will all of that meat stay good in the refrigerator?

“Once you’ve prepared something and it’s ready to go, you only want to leave it out for two hours,” said Alexis Supan, RD, registered dietitian for Cleveland Clinic. “The temperature danger zone is 40 degrees to 140 degrees. So, most food falls into that within a two-hour time frame.”

If confining turkey consumption to a two-hour window seems unlikely, there are some things you can do to snack safely well after the main event.

Supan suggests using a slow cooker for some of the meat or warming the turkey in the oven when you start nearing that two-hour mark. The core temperature should hit 165 degrees, to be safe, according to Supan.

If those leftovers are exposed to temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit while under the sun or sitting in a car, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend refrigerating the turkey within an hour to avoid food poisoning.

If you’re wondering what can grow on turkey that sits out too long, the CDC says there are outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens, the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, every November and December.

Investigators have tied those outbreaks, which often cause vomiting and abdominal cramps within 24 hours, to foods often served at holiday meals, such as turkey and roast beef.

What about turkey in the refrigerator?

If your Thanksgiving guests didn’t go home with the rest of the bird, it’s time to talk storage.

Slice up the meat into smaller portions and use sealed containers to keep the leftovers bacteria- and moisture-free. Since larger containers take longer for the food to cool, downsizing to multiple, smaller vessels helps keep bacteria from growing, according to FoodSafety.gov.

“A smaller, shallow glass or ceramic container would be ideal for storage,” Supan said.

Most Americans, 76% according to a USDA study, think you should let leftovers cool to room temperature before putting them in the refrigerator.

“This is not necessary and could actually make your food unsafe,” according to FoodSafety.gov. “Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible, even if they still have steam or heat coming off of them.”

But what’s the deadline for enjoying the last bites of the bird?

Three to four days is the recommended storage window, according to the Cleveland Clinic, but if you can’t finish the leftovers by Cyber Monday you can always freeze it.

After three or four months in the freezer, however, you run the risk of a change in quality or flavor.

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