What’s safe to eat and for how long, when you’ve an overloaded fridge and hungry hordes? What can we freeze and defrost without risk of illness?
You might want to collapse on the sofa after days cooking for the big Christmas lunch, but with a little effort and foresight, that meal will keep the family fed for days to come.
Turkey and other meat What to do with that bird you’ve spent hours cooking? Food writer Sue Quinn is the ultimate expert on leftovers as her new book, Second Helpings, is a guide to making the most of anything left on our plates.
If you’ve stripped your bird and squeezed it into the fridge or freezer on Christmas Day, you’re winning. “You really want to get any leftover turkey, ham, beef or other meat into the fridge or freezer within two hours of coming out of the oven,” she says. “It reduces the risk of giving people food poisoning - whatever you do, don’t keep it out overnight.” If you have left it out all night, eat at your own risk.
Make sure the meat left over from the turkey (or chicken) carcass, or the Boxing Day ham, is stored in an airtight container in the fridge, advises Quinn: “Wrap ham and beef well so it doesn’t dry out. Cooked meat freezes beautifully for around three months.”
So what’s the best way to avoid boredom if you have to eat turkey for days? “Make a lovely big pie,” says Quinn. “Add any leftover ham in with the turkey, and leftover vegetables too.
“Enchiladas are also fabulous - they contain lots of spices, so it really doesn’t seem like you’re eating the same meal again. Or make a vibrant salad. I have a Thai-style salad in my book that’s served with crispy noodles and Thai flavours - it works equally well with turkey or chicken.”
Swaledale Butchers’ in-house chef George Ryle says: “Don’t forget to utilise the carcass itself. Turkey bones make a really wonderful stock that can form the basis of many a great meal. Put a slightly Spanish twist on things with a baked rice with turkey and diced ham.”
Reheating meat Vivek Singh says cooked turkey is good for up to five days - the day of cooking plus four - if stored in the fridge. “I recommend reheating and using leftovers in a curry or a sauce,” he says, “ensuring the pan reaches simmering or boiling point.”
“The best way is to reheat portion by portion,” explains chef Chantelle Nicholson, owner of Apricity restaurant and sustainability expert.
“You can eke it out for longer and do not need to throw any in the bin. I suggest upcycling it into other things. Add flour and egg whilst cold then fry off to make curry fritters. Or make a thin omelette then fill with curry.”
How to defrost safely “If you’ve frozen your cooked turkey, it will be safe to consume safely within a month, meaning there is more time to enjoy your Christmas leftovers,” says Singh. “It’s best to defrost it using a microwave oven, one of the safest ways to reheat meat. I recommend adding it to a hearty salad or stir fry.”
Shortcuts “If you really can’t be bothered to make a special dish to celebrate your leftovers, just finely chop any leftover vegetables or meat and add them to an omelette,” says Quinn.
“Or make a super easy pasta sauce: fry an onion with a pinch of salt until very soft, add chopped leftover meat and/or vegetables and fry until hot. Add a splash each of white wine, stock and cream, plus lots of seasoning. Simmer until you have a sauce consistency (add some pasta water to loosen if necessary).”
Many of us don’t want to think about shopping or cooking again after all the effort of Christmas, but can we really keep eating leftover cold meats all week?
“Absolutely!” says Nicholson. “As long as they’re kept covered and chilled.”
Vegetables The safest way to stop bacteria developing on cooked food, which can lead to illness, is to make sure it stays in the fridge, preferably covered or in an airtight container, as soon as it has cooled to room temperature.
If you’ve left your veg out overnight, to sit around in an overheated room packed with rosy-cheeked relatives all night, you’re safest chucking them out. If they were stashed in the fridge yesterday, they’ll last from three days up to a week.
“All vegetables are better cooked whole if possible, rather than cut,” advises Robert Pearce, executive chef at Down Hall Hotel, Spa and Estate. “This prolongs the shelf life and keeps them tasting fresher for longer.
“After day two, if you’re not using them, make a hearty vegetable soup and freeze this in portions, a great way of using leftovers and getting another meal out of them.”
You can freeze cooked potatoes, too. If you have a lot of leftover roasties, you’ll be glad of some instant comfort food a few weeks’ down the line.
Too many sprouts? “Re-roast them hard in a pan with some diced ham, then add ginger, garlic and chilli and some rice,” says Swaledale’s Ryle. “Season with fish sauce, soy sauce and black vinegar for a festive fried rice.
Dairy The sniff test has become better known since last year, when supermarkets moved to remove use-by dates from milk while keeping best before dates that indicate quality rather than safety.
You may find that cream, especially soured cream, crème fraîche, and anything with added booze like brandy cream, last past their best before dates - it’s up to you to sniff, perhaps do a taste test, and decide whether to consume the product or not.
Bad dairy smells pretty awful. I scrape mould off yoghurt and soft cheese but the official line is that this could be unsafe, as the spores may have spread around the packaging.
What about hard cheese? So often it has a short date on it, but seems to go on for months.
“Eventually, if you keep it for a long time, cheese will turn,” says Nicholson. “I scrape the mould off my cheese at home, if it lasts that long!”
Gravy and sauces “For sauces such as mustard and horseradish, many of them bought from the shop have a great shelf life and a strong use-by date,” says Pearce. “Once opened, I would keep them in the fridge and try to consume them within three months of opening.”
If there is a use-by date on your packet, the Food Standards Agency urges us to stick to it, warning that we can’t “see or smell the bugs that cause food poisoning”.
If you have leftover Boxing Day gravy, freeze it in small portions, using an ice tray or freezer bags.
What about cranberry sauce?
Think of homemade sauce as similar to a chutney, preserved by the sugar you’ve cooked it in. It can last up to 10 to 14 days if stored in an airtight container in the fridge.
Christmas pudding and cake The reason fruit cakes and puddings are traditional for Christmas as well as weddings and christenings is that they keep and travel so well.
“Christmas cake and pudding will hopefully last for a very long time, thanks to it being fed with delicious Christmassy booze in the lead-up to Christmas,” says Oliver Marlowe, owner and chef director of pubs The Apollo Arms, Ganymede and The Hunter’s Moon. “Alcohol is one of those fantastic natural preservatives which means things can keep for ages.”
To keep things interesting,
Marlowe suggests making ice cream or tiramisu from any leftover pud.
“In theory, Christmas pudding ice cream, if it’s sealed properly, should last for ever. However, I’d recommend eating it within a couple of weeks. Either make your own vanilla ice cream or buy a good one. Let it defrost a little, then fold through chunks of Christmas pudding until evenly distributed. Pop the mix back in the freezer and leave to set again. Once set, top with clementine zest and booze.”
Seafood Fish and seafood of all kinds causes plenty of anxiety in the safety department. There’s a good reason we go for cured fish at this time of year. “My advice is to buy only what you need,” says Nicholson. “Otherwise, cook it all on day one - i.e. in a fish pie - then you can reheat it each day.”
Smoked salmon will come with a generous shelf life, usually two to three weeks, which makes it a useful product to have around between Christmas and New Year. If it’s been left out at a party, you’ll need to take a common sense approach to serving it again. How long was it out for? A few hours shouldn’t be a problem. Was the room hot? Have the edges browned and curled? In these cases, it might be best to throw it away and live to feast another day.
‘Second Helpings’ by Sue Quinn is published on 11 January (Quadrille, £18.99). Pictures by Facundo Bustamante
FAST FACTS BIN BURSTERS Over four million Christmas dinners are thrown away each year, while each household spends an extra £100 on food alone.
On this basis, Christmas food worth £444m is wasted each year in the UK.
An average of 19 per cent more food waste is produced at Christmas than at any other time of the year, the Too Good To Go survey found in 2022.
Poultry is in the top 10 most wasted foods in the UK at number eight: 100,000 tonnes end up in bins every year.
The potato is the most wasted food in the UK. We chuck out 710,000 tonnes of spuds a year from our homes, the equivalent of 4.4 million whole potatoes per day.
We waste 1.3 million tonnes of fresh vegetables and salads every year, costing £2.7bn, anti-waste charity Wrap found.