How to manage your holiday leftovers safely according to scientists

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Holiday leftovers: how to manage them safely
WATCH: While Christmas is in the past, many of your holiday feasts are still sitting in the fridge. But as you take a look -- and a sniff at the aging remnants of your festive meal -- you may be wondering if it's still good to eat. Well, Global’s Dan Spector has your back. He spoke to a pair of scientists to give you some helpful advice. – Dec 28, 2023

‘Twas days after Christmas and you wonder to yourself, has that leftover turkey spent a bit too much time on my refrigerator shelf? It looks and smells good but there is still a question. How long can I keep this until it gives me indigestion?

“You don’t take chances with your health,” said Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.

According to both Dr. Schwarcz and food scientist Bryan Le, there are some key numbers to remember when keeping things like cooked turkey in the fridge.

“Dairy things, maybe you have to be a bit more careful with, but cooked foods can be refrigerated three to four days,” said Schwarcz.

“I’d say three to four days max and then you can start tossing that,” said Le, who is also a food industry consultant.

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Reheating food to a piping hot temperature will kill some of the bacteria that’s been growing on the cooked meat, but after four days, the scientists say there is just too much.

Another key number to keep in mind is two hours.

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Cooked food left out on the counter longer than that will be crawling with bacteria.

“Within that two hour time span, they start to double every 20 minutes or every 30 minutes. You’ve got, thousands or 10,000 count of microorganisms. And that’s really going to be a big, big problem,” said Le.

Schwarcz said after two hours, microorganisms begin to produce toxins, which make us sick.

The numbers four and 60 are also key.

“You want to keep foods that are supposed to be cold below four degrees, and foods that should be hot above 60 degrees Celsius,” said Schwarcz.

Between four and 60 degrees, bacteria thrive and multiply. A fridge kept at four degrees or below will stunt their growth. A stew or sauce kept  above 60 degrees will continue to stay safe.

“You can basically hold food indefinitely above 60 degrees Celsius because there’s no pathogens or microorganisms that cause significant harm to food at that temperature,” said Le.

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Schwarcz says for the same reason, food should be thawed in the fridge or under cold water as much as possible.

“The rule of thumb is you don’t thaw things out on the countertop,” he told Global News.

Many people just use the smell and eye test to decide what’s going bad, and Le says it will often be effective.

“For the most part, you know, 90 per cent of the time, if it tastes bad or smells bad, that’s probably a good indicator,” said Le.

Both scientists warn, however, that method is not perfect.

“You can have very high bacterial count, which will not affect the smell or the taste,” said Schwarcz.

If you want to reduce your risk, don’t  push the two-hour and four-day rules, and throw food in the freezer early if you want to extend its life

“The bottom line here is when in doubt, throw it out,” said Schwarcz.

Click to play video: 'What to do with your holiday leftovers?'
What to do with your holiday leftovers?

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