How to Cook a Turkey the Day before Serving It

Cooking a turkey the day before serving it

Alice Henneman, MS, RDN,  Lancaster County Extension and 
Joyce Jensen, REHS, CFSP, Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department

Sometimes it may be easier to prepare your turkey the day before you plan to serve it. If you do, follow these guidelines (NOTE: These directions apply to roasting your turkey ONE day before your meal):

  1. Wait about 20 minutes after removing turkey from the oven to allow the juices to distribute. NOTE: Be sure to follow safe procedures for thawing and roasting your turkey before you proceed to this first step. For more information, go to the USDA Let's Talk Turkey site.
  2. Slice breast meat; legs and wings may be left whole. Place turkey in shallow containers; limit depth to less than 2 inches. Metal containers cool faster than glass-type pans. Also, refrigerate any broth saved for making gravy in shallow containers.

    NOTE: Wash your hands with soap and warm water for about 20 seconds before you begin slicing your turkey.

  3. Refrigerate turkey, loosely covered. You can place loosely covered foods in the refrigerator while still warm; cover tightly when food is completely cooled.
  4. When serving your turkey the next day, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline advises that cooked turkey may be eaten cold or reheated. To reheat your turkey, USDA gives the following recommendations:

    • In the Oven
      • Set the oven temperature no lower than 325° F.
      • Reheat turkey to an internal temperature of 165° F. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.
      • To keep the turkey moist, add a little broth or water and cover.
    • In the Microwave Oven
      • Cover your food and rotate it for even heating. Allow standing time.
      • Check the internal temperature of your food with a food thermometer to make sure it reaches 165° F.
      • Consult your microwave oven owner's manual for recommended times and power levels.
    • NOTE: If you're planning to travel and bring the turkey, it's safest and easiest to travel with it pre-cooked and cold. Carry it in an insulated cooler with lots of ice or frozen gel-packs to keep the cooler temperature under 40° F. Then reheat the turkey at your final destination.
  5. If you make your gravy the day before, refrigerate it in a shallow container. Bring gravy to a rolling boil when reheating it.
  6. After your meal, either freeze leftover turkey or plan to eat it within 3 to 4 days of the day it was originally prepared. Eat gravy within 1 to 2 days of original preparation date.

    NOTE: Be aware if you freeze leftover gravy, it may tend to separate when it thaws. Stirring gravy — especially with a whisk — during reheating will help it recombine. In general, gravy made with flour may reheat better than gravy made with cornstarch.

    FYI - a gravy made with cornstarch is translucent in appearance while one made with flour is more opaque. If you're new to gravy-making try one of the quick dissolving flours advertised for gravy making in the flour section of your store.

  7. Once removed from the oven, the reheated turkey shouldn't set at room temperature longer than 2 hours TOTAL time. For best safety and quality, avoid reheating and cooling turkey multiple times.

    NOTE: Discard any turkey, stuffing, and gravy left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90° F.

    TIP #1: If using a DIAL instant-read thermometer, insert it at an angle 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep through several slices of turkey. If using a DIGITAL instant-read thermometer, insert it at least 1 inch deep so it measures the center of a layer of slices.

    TIP #2: It's recommended that dressing be made as a separate dish and not stuffed in your turkey. Heat dressing until the center reaches 165°F. Eat dressing within 1 to 2 days of preparation.