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How to Prep Turkey: Thawing, Cooking, and Leftovers

Of all the holiday food staples, a festive spread just isn’t complete without the star of the show — the beloved turkey. Whether you want to barbecue, fry, or go the traditional route with roasting, the recipe options are endless. The only caveat with cooking the holiday staple is that the process takes a lot of time and planning. How do you thaw turkey? How long does it take to defrost turkey? How long can turkey stay in the fridge? Then, the cooking questions story — how to prep turkey for roasting, how to get crispy turkey skin, etc.

Of these questions, some of the most essential are: how to thaw turkey and how long thawed turkey can stay in the fridge, because you really have to build your cooking schedule around making sure your bird is defrosted early enough for it to get into the oven on time, but not so early that it sits in the fridge for longer than is safe. Also important is knowing how long cooked turkey can stay in the fridge, so you can plan your post-Thanksgiving leftover bonanza. So, we gathered Turkey Day tips from Butterball’s turkey experts to help you plan your timing so you can thaw and cook your turkey just right this holiday season.

1 Week Before Thanksgiving or Christmas

Pick up your frozen turkey from the grocery store or schedule it for delivery at least a week before your dinner. Thawing a turkey takes about one day per four pounds of turkey. (Here’s how to defrost turkey more quickly.) Then, once it’s thawed, the turkey can be refrigerated for an additional four days before it needs to be cooked. So if you’re cooking a 12-pound bird, you need to stick it in the fridge to thaw at least three days before you’ll be eating it (so it has time to fully thaw), and no more than seven days before you’ll be eating it (to stay within that four-day window).

When you’re ready to thaw, keep the turkey in its plastic wrap and place it on a rimmed sheet tray or roasting pan to keep any juices from making a mess in your fridge. Put it in the coldest part of your fridge to defrost, or better yet, store it in a spare fridge that isn’t opened often.

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The Day Before Thanksgiving or Christmas

Want to prep the bird the day before? Go ahead! Just pat the turkey dry with paper towels, season to your liking, and cover it with foil before returning it to the fridge. Just remember to prep the turkey and get it back into the fridge as soon as possible. Also, don’t put the turkey on the roasting pan you plan to use. You don’t want that pan to be ice cold when it goes into the oven.

Thanksgiving or Christmas Day

Have a plan before the big day. Decide on a time you want to serve dinner, and know how long your turkey recipe will take you. (Here’s how to tell if a turkey is done without a meat thermometer.) Then work backwards, and make sure you stick the turkey in the oven that many hours before you want to eat. So if total cooking and prepping time is four and a half hours and you want to serve at 3 p.m., then you’ll need to get the bird into the oven at 10:30 a.m. Once the turkey is out of the oven, you have two hours to carve it, eat it, and put the wrapped leftovers into the fridge. Plan on carving the entire bird in one go as a food safety concern (remember: even cooked meat has a danger zone!).

How Long Can You Keep Leftover Turkey?

Refrigerated turkey leftovers will keep for three days. After that, the turkey proteins begin to break down. Either toss any remaining leftovers after day three, or freeze them. In the freezer, they’ll keep for up to two months.

Additional reporting by Lauren Harano, Theresa Massony, and Naomi Parris



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