Should You Eat Turkey that was Left Out? Here’s How to Know

Thanksgiving is a day spent prepping, cooking, and enjoying a meal with family. After the meal, no one wants to spend the time putting away leftovers. But is that leftover turkey safe to eat after being left out?

Turkey that has been left out at room temperature for more than a few hours is no longer safe to eat. After sitting at room temperature for two or more hours, cooked Turkey starts to form harmful bacteria. This bacteria can lead to food-borne illness and should therefore not be eaten.

Although leaving food out for a few extra hours may seem harmless, it can lead to some pretty serious consequences. Keep reading to learn how to tell if your turkey has gone bad, what happens when a cooked turkey is left out, food poisoning, and how to care for your leftovers.

How to Tell if Turkey is Still Good

Before you make that leftover Turkey sandwich from the food left out on the counter all night, there are a few things to look for and consider.

First point to consider is how long the turkey has been left out.

After being left out in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more hours, turkey begins to develop harmful bacteria.

This bacteria doesn’t just go away after being warmed in the microwave, either.

Although the exact time it takes for your turkey to start growing bacteria may vary depending on how it was cooked and the temperature of your home, the rule of thumb is to not leave the turkey out for more than two hours. Think twice before eating any leftover turkey that has not been refrigerated.

Other factors to look for before eating left over turkey is color and smell.

If your turkey has any discoloration or slimy texture, toss it out. Additionally, cooked turkey that has gone bad will have a sour smell. If any of your leftover turkey looks, smells or tastes bad, stop eating and discard it immediately.

If you notice anything wrong with your turkey do not taste it to see if it is still good. Even a small amount of spoiled turkey can and will make you sick.

What Happens When Turkey is Left Out

After eating a turkey dinner all anyone wants to do is curl up on the couch and take a nap. But as that leftover turkey sits there on the counter, what is actually happening to it?

Turkey needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. After the meal is finished, the turkey that is left out begins to cool down. When the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens begins to grow. Although not an exact measurement, turkey typically takes at least two hours to reach this temperature.

Turkey is especially prone to bacteria due to its large quantity of nutrients. While those nutrients benefit us, they also create the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

This bacteria will continue to grow until the internal temperature has dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This range, 140 degrees to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, has been labeled by the CDC as the food “danger zone”. The longer turkey is left at this temperature, the more likely you are to get sick from eating it.

Although you may not always get sick from eating turkey that has been left out, you should not risk it.

Clostridium perfringens is the second most common cause of food poisoning in the United States and is most prevalent in November and December. This is likely due to improper food storage after holiday meals.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

If you think you ate some spoiled turkey be prepared for what might come by reading about food poisoning symptoms and treatment.

Food poisoning can set in anywhere between six and 24 hours after eating.

As one could assume, food poisoning affects your digestive system. The severity of symptoms may vary from extremely mild to extremely serious.

The most common symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • stomach cramps
  • fever

More severe symptoms could include bloody diarrhea, dehydration (usually resulting from excessive vomiting), and high fever. If any of these symptoms arise or the more mild symptoms persist for longer than two days, seek medical attention.

How to Treat Food Poisoning

While some food poisoning cases require hospitalization, the majority can be easily treated at home.

The most important thing to do when treating food poisoning is to remain hydrated. Most food poisoning complications come from dehydration. Stay hydrated and maintain your electrolytes by drinking sports drinks (Gatorade/Powerade) and broths.

Because food poisoning causes an upset stomach, it may be difficult to keep food down. While you may not feel like eating, it is still important. Eat foods that are gentler on your stomach such as rice, toast, broths, and applesauce. Keep eating gentle foods until all of your symptoms have subsided.

Medications such a Pepto-Bismol or an antidiarrheal can help alleviate food poisoning symptoms during recovery.

While staying hydrated is the most important way to treat food poisoning, the second most important factor is rest. Lay back, take a nap, and let your body heal.

How to Take Care of Turkey Leftovers

While you now know how to treat food poisoning, it would be better to avoid it altogether. This can be prevented by properly storing your leftover turkey.

Most turkeys are refrigerated whole. Although this is better than not being refrigerated at all, it is not the best method.

Cut your leftover turkey into smaller pieces and store it in a sealed container. This allows the turkey to cool faster and more evenly. The sooner your leftover turkey exits the “danger zone”, the less chance there is for bacteria growth and subsequent food poisoning.

Refrigerate your cut turkey leftovers below 40 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours of your meal.

Properly stored turkey can last for up to 4 days in the fridge and for at least four months in the freezer.

When reheating your leftover turkey, be sure to bring it to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. This will ensure that any bacteria that found their way onto the turkey is killed, keeping you and your family healthy.


Being part of a really big family, cooking for big groups of people is just how we do things. Cooking, baking, and outdoor cooking have all been huge parts of my life, and I love sharing what I've learned with you.

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