Here's How Long You Can Keep Turkey in the Fridge — Whether Frozen, Thawed, or Leftover

It doesn't matter how many unique side dishes you make, a festive holiday spread just isn't complete without the star of the show: the turkey. Whether you want to barbecue or fry the bird 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 long does it take to defrost turkey? How do you thaw it? And how long can a thawed turkey stay in the fridge? Then the cooking questions start — 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. You need 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.

To help you time everything right, we gathered turkey tips from Butterball's turkey experts and award-winning nutrition expert Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, a food-safety consultant and author of "Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Whole Family".

How Long Can a Frozen or Thawed Turkey Stay In the Fridge?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends defrosting turkey in the refrigerator at 40°F or below for several days before you plan on cooking it. Thawing a turkey takes about one day per four pounds of turkey, Amidor says, which means a smaller 12-pound turkey will take three days, whereas the largest turkey of 20-24 pounds can take up to six days to defrost. (Butterball has a handy calculator that can tell you exactly how long you'll need to thaw your bird. And if you don't have that much time, here's how to defrost turkey more quickly.)

Once it's thawed, the turkey can stay in the refrigerator for an additional two days before it needs to be cooked, Amidor says.

So, for example, if you're cooking a 20-24-pound bird, you need to stick it in the fridge to thaw at least six days before you'll be eating it (so it has time to fully thaw), and no more than eight days before you'll be eating it (to stay within that two-day window). For a 12-pound turkey, you'll want to put it in the fridge for a minimum of three days and a maximum of five.

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. And "if you thaw the turkey in the refrigerator and choose not to cook it, you can refreeze it without cooking, but there will be some loss of quality," Amidor says.

How Long Does Leftover Turkey Last in the Fridge?

Cooked turkey can be stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or below for three or four days, maximum, Amidor says. "Refrigeration slows down the growth of bacteria but does not stop bacterial growth or kill bacteria." When you reheat the leftover turkey, be sure it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F so it's safe to eat, per the USDA.

If you won't eat the turkey within a few days, you can also freeze cooked turkey for three to four months, Amidor says.

Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo