Congratulations, you did it! You pulled off another successful holiday dinner. The majority of the guests have left the table and moved on to another room for coffee and a second piece of that fabulous sweet potato pie, leaving you and a few brave volunteers to clean up the remains. As usual, there are a lot of leftovers that you don’t want to waste, but you aren’t sure how long you can store them. Follow these guidelines for handling holiday leftovers and you will be able to enjoy the taste of the holidays for weeks to come.
How Long Can You Safely Leave Food on the Table?
Cooked food should not be left out of refrigeration for more than two hours. Cooked food sitting at room temperature is in, according to the USDA guidelines, the “Danger Zone,” which is between 40°F and 140°F. In this range of temperatures, bacteria can grow rapidly, and the food can become unsafe to eat, so it should only be left out no more than two hours. If conversation around your dinner table is so stimulating that guests linger more than two hours, just remove the food, (which by now has undoubtedly cooled) seal it up and slip it into the refrigerator.
One exception: This probably won’t happen around the winter holidays in the South but, if the food is sitting in an environment where the temperature is over 90°F, the USDA recommends leaving food out for one hour instead of the usual two.
How to Store Leftovers
A good rule to remember is this: Leftovers should only be reheated once, because the more times you reheat it, the more taste and texture the item will lose. It is best to divide each dish into smaller, individual servings before refrigerating or freezing.
Turkey: The main dish for many holiday dinners, turkey will lasts for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator and 2 to 3 months in the freezer. Carve the meat off the bone before storing it away. If you plan to make turkey tetrazzini or ham sandwiches in a few weeks, now is a good time to either slice, dice, or shred the meat; it will save yourself some time down the road. Measure the amount of meat and label each freezer bag with the amount and date before storing away in the freezer; when you are ready to use that leftover turkey in a delicious recipe, just pull out the amount of meat you need.
Cranberry Sauce: Stored in a glass or plastic container, cranberry sauce will last from 10 to 14 days in the refrigerator. Put it in the freezer to last up to 2 months. Leftover cranberry sauce makes a delicious condiment to serve over hot turkey or ham sandwiches or spread it over a cheesecake for a surprising not-so-sweet topping.
Dressing and Casseroles: Keep cornbread dressings, sweet potato casseroles, etc. in the refrigerator 3 to 4 days. Casseroles with a milk or soup base, such as the green bean casserole, will not freeze well; besides, Cooked green beans will not survive the freezing process well, so plan to turn any leftover green bean casserole into a quiche for brunch. Dishes made with pumpkin, sweet potato, or squash will hold up well in the freezer, especially if they have been puréed first. Freeze these, as well as cornbread dressing, for up to 3 months.
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Mashed potatoes: Keep these in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days. With freezing, the issue is not with the potatoes, but with the dairy added. Milk, buttermilk, cream, butter, etc. can curdle or turn once heated and then brought out from a frozen state and reheated, and the quality of thawed and reheated mashed potatoes may not be as good as you would like. Use leftover mashed potatoes to top a ground beef casserole or Shepherd's Pie.
Bread: you don’t want to waste good homemade bread, but putting it in the refrigerator can leave it stale and hard. If you have more leftover bread than you think you will use over the next few days, freeze it in airtight baggies for up to 3 months.
Gravy: This creamy goodness only lasts 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator. A flour-based turkey gravy can be frozen for up to 4 months, but cream or milk-based gravies should not be frozen because they will separate when thawed.