Planning ahead for the holidays is stressful enough without having to worry about when to buy all the food. Being able to get a turkey way ahead of time certainly helps lower your anxiety. But how long can you freeze one for?
Raw turkey can be frozen indefinitely safely but should be consumed within 3-4 months for optimal taste and freshness. It should be frozen within 2 days of purchasing and no longer than 2 days after the sell-by date. Frozen Turkey should be thawed in the fridge and not at room temperature.
The rest of the article will cover how to properly freeze and store a turkey, and answer a few common questions on the topic.
How Do You Freeze a Fresh Turkey?
How to freeze fresh turkey depends on whether or not the turkey has been prepared beforehand.
For a whole turkey, you can leave the turkey in its original packaging to freeze it. There is no need to remove it and re-wrap it. However, it can be a good idea to add an additional layer of aluminum foil to the wrapping to ensure that the turkey doesn’t get contaminated by any food smells in the freezer.
For fresh turkey parts, you should use freezer bags or tight cellophane wrap to wrap the turkey parts before placing them in the freezer. It is always a good idea to write the date on the bag or wrap so that you know exactly when the turkey parts were placed in the freezer.
In both cases, the freezer must be set to below 0 °F so that you can be sure that the turkey isn’t degrading or becoming unsafe.
It can also be a good idea to make sure that you place the turkey in the deepest part of the freezer. Whenever the freezer door opens, it will raise the temperature slightly, which is more of a problem for foods that are kept on the door shelves or very close to the front.
Because turkey can harbor harmful bacteria, it must be continuously frozen to ensure that it is safe to eat. Storing it at the bottom or the back of a freezer will make it much less likely that the temperature will change.
Related How Long Does Meat Last in the Freezer? (With Storage Times).
Is Frozen Turkey as Good as Fresh?
If you are buying a turkey from the store that has already been frozen, then there should be no difference in quality between frozen and fresh turkey. This is because the turkey is flash-frozen as soon as it is packaged.
Freezing halts the degradation of the meat then, so frozen turkey should be identical to the way it would have been when it was freshly packaged. Things can get a little more complicated when you are freezing turkey at home that was bought fresh.
When it is frozen, it will retain the qualities that it had at the moment it was frozen. So if the turkey was left in the fridge for a day or so before being frozen, it won’t revert to being completely fresh once it is thawed. Instead, it will have the same quality it had when it was frozen, which may not be as good as it would have been had it been eaten or frozen when it was fresh.
What Does the Sell-by Date Mean on a Frozen Turkey?
There are three types of dates that you might see on a frozen turkey, and not all of them are directly related to food safety.
The sell-by date is the last date on which a store can display and sell the turkey. It doesn’t mean that the turkey is unsafe to eat after that date. Similarly, a best-before date indicates the last date when you can expect the turkey to be at its best quality in terms of flavor, texture, etc. It also doesn’t refer to food safety.
The use-by date, however, is an indication of food safety. It is the last date on which the turkey is safe to consume. It would be best if you didn’t eat turkey that has gone past its use-by date.
In all of these cases, the dates no longer have any meaning if you freeze the turkey at home. If you have frozen the turkey before it becomes unsafe to eat, you no longer need to abide by the expiration dates. But instead, you should refer to the frozen storage guidelines for turkey. Fresh turkey can be safe to eat indefinitely if kept at 0 °F or below, but it is at its best quality if eaten before 4 months.
How Far in Advance Should I Buy Fresh Turkey?
You should buy fresh turkey 1-2 days before you plan to cook it. It should always be stored in a refrigerator set to 40 °F or below. Turkey perishes quite quickly, so it is important to plan ahead to ensure that you can get the turkey within the right timeframe for when you plan to cook it.
If it won’t be possible for you to get a turkey so close to the day, buying a fresh turkey a while before the date and freezing it can be a good option. The quality of the turkey won’t change and, once it thaws, it will be just the same as if you had just bought it fresh.
Can You Freeze Ground Turkey?
It is safe to store ground turkey in a freezer. However, you should make sure to freeze it within 2 days of buying it. If it is coming close to its expiration date, you should freeze it no longer than 2 days past the sell-by date.
Freezing will stop the process of bacteria growing on the turkey, but it can’t reverse it, so you need to make sure to freeze it before it goes bad.
Ground turkey can be stored in the freezer in its original packaging, but it can also be a good idea to wrap it in aluminum foil and place it into a carrier bag. The packaging that the turkey comes in may not always be airtight, so it could leech food smells from other items in the freezer, which will interfere with its taste.
How Long Can You Freeze Ground Turkey?
USDA guidelines state that ground turkey should be stored for 3-4 months. But they say that these storage times are for “best quality.” This means that the ground turkey won’t necessarily be unsafe to eat after 3-4 months. Instead, it just won’t taste as nice. The freezer should always be kept at 0 °F or below.
In terms of safety, the USDA guidelines state that if continuously frozen, ground turkey will be safe to eat indefinitely. As long as it stays frozen, bacteria that could cause illness will be unable to grow. However, with a home freezing situation, it can be difficult to be 100% sure that something has been kept completely frozen the entire time. So many people use a rule of thumb that the ground turkey should be eaten within a year to ensure it is safe.
When Should I Defrost My Turkey?
It can take a long time for the turkey to defrost safely, so you need to make sure to allow yourself enough time for your turkey to thaw before you need to cook it. And the length of time it takes for the turkey to thaw depends on the method that you are using.
The USDA recommends slow thawing in the refrigerator. With this method, you should allow 1 day of thawing for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. This is the best method because you can be relatively certain that the turkey has properly defrosted all the way through.
If you don’t have a day or longer to wait for your turkey to defrost, you can use a couple of other methods.
- Cold water defrosting– This involves keeping the turkey in its packaging or an airtight bag and placing it in a bowl of cold water. You should change the water every 30 minutes to ensure that it stays cold. You should estimate 30 minutes per pound of meat, so this method can be done on the day that you will be cooking your turkey as long as you start the process early enough.
- Microwave Defrosting- This is, of course, the quickest method of defrosting, but it is also the method that could cause the most issues. If you do use microwave defrosting, you should cook the turkey immediately. Some parts of the turkey could have started cooking during the microwaving process, and it isn’t safe to store partially cooked food.
Can You Defrost a Turkey at Room Temperature?
It is not safe to defrost a turkey at room temperature since it is the ideal temperature for bacteria to grow. There are a variety of different types of bacteria that can grow on turkey and can cause illness in humans. Many of these can be destroyed if the turkey is thoroughly cooked, but some can’t.
Because of this, you should never leave perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours. In most cases, it would take longer than two hours for your turkey to defrost, which takes you outside of the safe zone. So defrosting a turkey at room temperature won’t be safe and could leave you open to food poisoning, even if the turkey is then thoroughly cooked.
How Long Does Turkey Last in the Fridge?
Sealed raw turkey, including turkey that has been defrosted, can be safely stored in the fridge for 1-2 days. The refrigerator should be kept at temperatures of less than 40 °F. Refrigeration can slow the growth of bacteria, but it can’t stop it entirely in the way that freezing does.
Cooked turkey can last a little longer in the fridge than raw turkey. Up to 3-4 days if stored properly at a safe temperature.
Is It Safe To Eat a Turkey Frozen for More Than Two Years?
The USDA states that a turkey that has been kept continuously frozen will be safe to eat indefinitely. This is because the bacteria that could cause illness are unable to grow at freezing temperatures. So it should be safe to eat a turkey that has been frozen for more than two years.
With that being said, however, it is very difficult to guarantee that the turkey really has been kept continuously frozen for all that time. For example, a power cut or other event could have interfered with the freezing without your knowledge. In that case, the turkey would not have kept to the criteria of being continuously frozen. Therefore, it is always best to be careful and check that the food is safe to eat before you go ahead and cook it.
How Can You Tell if a Frozen Turkey Is Bad?
Sometimes it can be easy to tell if your turkey has gone bad by using your senses. The smell is one strong indication, and with turkey, you should expect it to smell foul and potentially like sulfur or rotten eggs. The sight of the turkey may look wrong as well. For instance, the skin may look slimy.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes impossible to tell by the way the turkey looks and smells if it has been contaminated. Some foodborne pathogens don’t change how the meat looks at all but can still make you ill. Your best protection against these is to make sure that you follow all the safe storage, thawing, and cooking recommendations.
Fresh turkey can go bad relatively quickly and can only be stored in a refrigerator for 1-2 days. A frozen turkey can be a good option for added convenience, and it can be safely stored in a freezer indefinitely as long as the temperature is below 0 °F the entire time.
It is recommended that you cook and eat the turkey within 4 months of it being frozen, however, to ensure that it retains its quality (not for safety reasons). Frozen turkey that has been properly stored has the same level of quality as fresh turkey, and it should be slowly thawed in the refrigerator, if possible.
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For more, don’t miss How Long Does Turkey Last? | Raw vs. Cooked.
Anne James has a wealth of expertise in a wide array of interests, including quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, and making jelly.
She has a professional canning business and has been featured in the local newspaper, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is.
With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass.
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