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How to Tell if Turkey Is Bad

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We have all seen that familiar look of dread on the host’s face at a Thanksgiving dinner as they realize that the turkey hasn’t thawed, is out of date, or that they have skipped a crucial step in one of the more beloved side dishes.

That’s because it happens to everyone, more than we would care to admit.

But what if you could avoid the social humiliation of giving food poisoning to Grandma and be the culinary prodigy that doesn’t have to resort to KFC at the last minute? Well, you can, and it’s simpler than you could ever imagine.

How can you tell if turkey meat has gone bad? Read on to find out.

Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style

Telltale Signs of Expired Raw Turkey


All meats have indicators of freshness that are most easily identified by our senses. Turkey will give off a scent that smells like sulfur but can also just smell a bit gamey. So while it may not be especially sulfuric, if it smells unpleasant, throw it out.

Poultry will always have some amount of odor to a lesser degree, but deciding between the smell of fresh raw turkey and rotting turkey is easy enough to distinguish when you know what to look for.

Change In Pigment

When a raw turkey begins to take a turn for the worse, the color of its skin will change from varying shades of white and pink to a dark, more lifeless gray.

Sometimes it can just be a slight shift in color from when you bought it. If you notice the shade of your turkey changing, it may be time to give it the old familiar sniff test to help suss out if it is still good to eat.

Slimy Coat

Whenever you notice a slimy film on the exterior of meat it is almost never a good sign and that holds true for turkey as well.

If you find yourself in possession of a less than top-notch turkey and notice a slimy finish to it, be sure to toss it and decontaminate anything it has come into contact with (surfaces, foods, cutting boards, etc) as it may carry salmonella.

Fresh sliced turkey meat on black board

Telltale Signs of Expired Cooked Turkey

Sour Odor

The smell may differ from raw turkey but it is still especially pervasive and unpleasant.

When a cooked turkey stops smelling of thyme, sage, and parsley and begins to get a stench of acetic acid or other unpleasant smells, it’s probably about time for the molding bird to leave the nest.

Darker shades of pigment

Your turkey will take on a darker color from when it first popped out of the oven, and other discoloration may include yellow, green, or gray splotches along the surface of the turkey.

If your turkey begins to take on these different colors, then it is time to get rid of it.

Slimy Coat

This stuff exists on every iteration of spoiled turkey, raw and cooked. If you see it, don’t risk the possible life-altering diseases that come from out-of-date poultry, toss it in the garbage and be done with it.

Closeup of roasted big turkey for thanksgiving

Avoiding Foodborne Illnesses from Turkey

The dangers of ingesting undercooked, overripe, or improperly stored turkey can result in far worse consequences than a bad taste in your mouth.

The CDC estimates that 128,000 people are hospitalized from foodborne illnesses every year.

This is only worsened by the fact that turkey also leaves you susceptible to salmonella which they estimate hospitalizes just over 26,000 people.

Thankfully you can avoid becoming one of these daunting statistics by following a few easy and simple steps to help keep your turkey fresh and flavorful.

How to Store Turkey Properly

Temperature Control

Anyone who has spent any time in foodservice is familiar with the temperature danger zone (40 – 140 degrees Fahrenheit). To keep it simple, avoid storing anything sensitive to the elements in the temperature danger zone.

Turkey can be frozen for up to two years and still be safe to cook, though it is recommended to cook it within the year for ideal quality. It can be stored in a fridge for no longer than three to four days, although cold cuts can be kept for up to five days.

It should be kept in the coldest part of your fridge, which is always going to be the bottom-most shelf or drawer, which also eliminates the chance of cross-contamination.

Time Sensitivity

There are few sedatives more effective than a full Thanksgiving dinner. However, even though the urge to unfasten your belt and quietly fall asleep to evening television is more tempting than ever, it is very important that you store the turkey (don’t forget to remove the meat from the bones before refrigerating) within two hours of taking it out of the oven.

If it’s left out, it can fall into the temperature danger zone, allowing for bacteria (among other things) to grow on it.

Once the cooked turkey is refrigerated it can sit in the fridge for 3 – 4 days before it goes bad. Alternatively, you can wrap it in freezer paper and it can be stored for another 3 – 4 months if you have a lot of leftovers.

By cutting up the turkey into smaller parts and placing those parts into smaller, more shallow containers, they will cool more quickly and keep the meat fresher by reaching food-safe temperature levels.

This advice can be applied to turkey breast, sliced turkey, or a whole bird, though the expiry date of sliced turkey tends to extend past what I previously described and should be listed on the container.


Whether you are just in the mood for some comfort food or you are in the position of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, the advice I’ve given will keep your guests happy and safe from the dangers of a salmonella outbreak localized entirely in your kitchen.

So don’t forget to avoid slimy, discolored meat with a foul smell, to keep your meat at a safe temperature (below 40 or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit), and to store it in your fridge as quickly as you can to keep yourself from having to explain why your turkey smells like a sulfur pit.

Safe cooking!