Published on 11/06/08

Don't wait too long to enjoy holiday leftovers

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

Leftover turkey and dressing or a slice of pumpkin pie can be a wonderful after-the-holidays treat. But don’t wait too long to eat them, says a University of Georgia food safety expert.

“A good rule of thumb is to use your leftovers within three to four days,” said Judy Harrison, a UGA Cooperative Extension food safety specialist with the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “After four days you should discard them.”

Eating leftovers that have been kept too long or stored improperly can make people sick with a variety of foodborne pathogens, she said.

“Some bacteria like Listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures,” Harrison said. “And the longer you keep the food, the more time bacteria have to grow to high numbers.”

If your holiday meal is set up as a buffet, she says, don’t save the leftovers.

“Food on buffets comes in contact with a lot of people,” she said. “This greatly increases the risk of contamination.”

Remember that even fully-cooked foods can grow bacteria if you don't care for them properly after you cook them.

Food kept at room temperature for two hours or less can be stored for later use. Freezing leftovers is an excellent way to limit waste and prepare for future meals. "There are many advantages of freezing prepared foods," said Elizabeth Andress, director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation hosted by FCS.

"Cool cooked foods quickly for safety and freshness," Andress said. "Keeping foods at room temperature for several hours before freezing increases the chance of spoilage and foodborne illness."

To cool hot food faster, put it in a pan or sink of ice water. This is especially important, she said, when preparing large amounts of food. Change the ice water often or run cold water around the pan. When the food is cool, immediately package and freeze it.

"Packaging materials must be moisture-vapor-resistant, durable and leak proof," Andress said. "Bags shouldn't become brittle and crack at low temperatures. They should be resistant to oils, grease or water. Packaging should protect foods from absorption of off-flavors or odors. They should be easy to seal, too, and easy to write on."

Good freezing materials include rigid containers made of aluminum, glass, plastic or stainless steel. Bags and sheets of moisture-vapor-resistant wraps and laminated papers made specifically for freezing are good choices, too.

"Package foods in the amounts you want to use at one time," Andress said. "Once food is thawed, it spoils more quickly than fresh foods. Be sure to label each package with contents and date."

Troublesome foods

Some foods don't freeze well.

"Milk sauces and gravies sometimes curdle and separate when frozen," Andress said. "Stirring while reheating helps keep the product smooth. Using waxy rice flour or waxy corn flour as the thickener also helps to fix the problem."

She said it’s better to freeze broth and make gravy just before serving.

Cooked, creamed vegetables tend to lose flavor fast when frozen. Don't put them in the freezer unless you'll use them within three weeks.

Vegetables packed in sauce tend to retain their flavor longer. Cook your vegetables, cool them quickly and then add the sauce. Package the mixture in freezer containers, leaving space for expansion.

Lettuce, other greens, cucumbers, radishes and celery lose crispness and become soggy when thawed. Raw potatoes don't freeze well, either.

Slice the turkey

Freezing whole, cooked turkeys isn't considered safe.

"As with any food, the time needed for freezing in the center of the item is the critical factor," Andress said. "Trying to freeze a large mass like a whole cooked and stuffed turkey can keep the center warm enough for the hours it takes some bacteria to multiply to harmful levels."

Slice the turkey off the bone and package it in usable amounts, she said. Freeze stuffing separately, too, so it freezes quickly.

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.