How Long Is It Safe for Turkey to Rest at Room Temperature?

Keep timing in mind to bring your bird to the table safely.

November 18, 2022

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Photo by: YinYang/Getty Images

YinYang/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is all about the food, and with all that cooking and planning, timing is everything — especially when it comes to the turkey. Once that turkey is cooked, have you ever thought about how long it can actually sit at room temperature? Many families leave their bird sitting out on center stage (or just on the stove) before and for the duration of the several-hour meal, which isn't the safest way to eat it. Here’s a look at the guidelines for keeping your turkey dinner safe.

You Have Two Hours at Eat (and Store Leftovers) Once the Turkey Is Cooked

First, you want to make sure you cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F (check the temp in at least two places with a meat thermometer to ensure both white and dark meat are cooked through). Once your turkey is cooked and cooled to room temp, you want to refrigerate the bird at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or eat well within two hours of removing the bird from the oven. For hot, juicy meat, you want your turkey to be ready 15 to 20 minutes before you begin your feast. This will allow about 15 to 20 minutes for the turkey to rest before you slice it.

To store turkey, slice the meat into smaller cuts about two to three inches in size, so they will cool quickly, and place in a resealable container. Leftovers can be stored for about four days or frozen for up to two months and should be reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.

Why Is There a Two-Hour Time Limit?

Leaving cooked turkey out for a few hours can be cause for concern. Bacteria thrive at temperatures between 41 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is exactly where room temperature falls. Bacteria can be introduced onto your turkey if it is not cooked properly, by other raw foods through cross-contamination, or by humans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the bacteria Clostridium perfringens grows in cooked foods that are left at room temperature. It’s the second most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness. Symptoms such as vomiting and abdominal cramps appear within 6 to 24 hours after eating. Outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens occur most often in November and December. Many of the outbreaks are related to holiday foods like turkey and roast beef.

Other Food Safety Measures to Consider

Food poisoning tends to result when numerous practices aren’t followed. When it comes to your Thanksgiving turkey, remember to do the following:

  • Defrost your turkey in the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below for several days before you will be preparing it. Defrost the turkey in a large pan to avoid cross-contamination and the juices dripping in the fridge.
  • Brine your turkey in the fridge.
  • If you choose to stuff your turkey, do so lightly and don’t over pack it. You can also choose to cook the turkey and stuffing separately.
  • Cook the turkey properly. Cooking time of your turkey varies by weight — find approximate cooking time for your bird here. Use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked turkey which is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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