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Let's Talk Turkey: What to Do with All Those Holiday Turkey Leftovers

By Vicki McClure Davidson


Let's talk turkey.

Forty-five million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving in the United States. Twenty-two million turkeys are eaten each Christmas and nineteen million are eaten each Easter. The turkeys that were raised and produced in the US in 2007 together weighed 7.9 billion pounds and were valued at $3.7 billion. United States turkey growers estimated that they would produce approximately 271 million turkeys in 2008. In 2007, the average American ate 17.5 pounds of turkey and 97 percent of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey at Thanksgiving. In 2010, Americans' consumption of Thanksgiving turkeys jumped by a million, up to 46 million. More than 226 million turkeys were consumed in the United States in 2010.

Put this all together and it means there is A LOT of leftover turkey out there to deal with.

Vintage 1940 US photograph of a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. A decidedly (and strangely) elongated bird from 60-plus years ago, not the bulky, meatier turkeys we're used to seeing today. Chances are it was a wild turkey. | Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

Vintage 1940 US photograph of a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. A decidedly (and strangely) elongated bird from 60-plus years ago, not the bulky, meatier turkeys we're used to seeing today. Chances are it was a wild turkey. | Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

And it's not just in America where turkey is so prized for holiday meals. Per a recent survey, for 87 percent of people in the United Kingdom, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a traditional roast turkey. Israelis eat the most turkeys of all nations, at 28 pounds per person per year.

That's one heck of a lot of turkey.

With all that delectable turkey being served in American dining rooms, there is a huge amount of leftovers. Reportedly, the five most popular ways to serve leftover turkey is in a sandwich, in a stew, in chili or soup, in casseroles, and as a turkey burger.


Leftover Turkey Is, Well, Awesome

I'm from a fairly big family—there were five of us kids—and we never had a problem devouring leftover turkey. We looked forward to the leftovers, and usually squabbled about who would get the drumstick, who would get the wishbone. And the leftovers always seemed better-tasting on the second or third day of the Thanksgiving four-day weekend. My mom made turkey noodle soup with leftover turkey (gallons upon gallons of it), as well as many casseroles and salads. And of course, turkey sandwiches. So, imagine my abashed chagrin when, time and again, friends who are struggling financially say, "Oh, I don't know what to do with all this leftover turkey from Thanksgiving! There's no way we can eat it all before it goes bad. I think I'll just throw it out."


"Before it goes BAD? What, have you not ever heard of a freezer?"

Yes, they'd rather throw away perfectly good food rather than find ways to serve it up in leftovers or take a few minutes to pack it into the freezer. Yikes, what misguided, pitiful souls. My tongue is pretty raw from having to bite it so often to keep from saying the first sarcastic thing that pops into my head when I hear of such wasteful behavior from my (ahem) normally intelligent friends.

Truth is, I'm usually the lucky recipient of turkey leftovers (few others ask for them nor want them), so I won't complain too much about other people's foolishness. In fact, I'm grateful.

At work after the company Thanksgiving or Christmas lunches, most of the employees are men who are stymied about whether or not their wives or girlfriends would even want them to come home with leftover turkey. Then they wince, wondering how they would transport the leftovers home. Poor things... I'll do my part and take the turkey so they won't continue to anguish.

I'm usually prepared for these times of potential bounty, bringing several zip-lock bags and plastic containers to work. I even ask for the turkey carcass, which most men look aghast that I'd want. We pack it all up and I grin all the way home.

I'm always on a stringent food budget, and a leftover turkey bounty like this only happens a few times a year, so I take great pleasure in my victory in the food jungle for that week.

When I get home, I whip into action. Wash my hands thoroughly. Peel off all the remaining turkey meat down to the bones and pack into containers or freezer bags. Simmer the carcass and bones with bay leaves for stock (sometimes I also pop in the drumstick, if I happened to get one), and then wrap and pack everything once it's cooled down so it can be stored in the fridge or freezer. We don't have a large refrigerator and I don't yet have a deep freezer, so it can be a challenge to fit it all in. But, I manage. And in so doing, our food budget for the next week is in the black for a change. On average, a 15-pound turkey usually has about 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat, so that can help you think about the many ways you can prepare the leftovers.


How Many Ways Can You Prepare Leftover Turkey?

How many ways? A million, I'm betting. Because turkey is stronger tasting than chicken, some people haven't a clue how to serve turkey if there isn't stuffing and gravy. But it can be used in all the ways that leftover chicken can be used.

Truth be told, turkey is actually better for you than chicken. Turkey is lower in fat and higher in protein, having more protein than either chicken or beef. For people with food allergies or health issues, turkey is one of the foods that is usually permitted on their list of foods they can safely eat. The white meat of a turkey has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat.

Word to the wise: When making soup or stew, white meat will cook down and disintegrate faster than dark meat. If you're going to be simmering something for a few hours, it is best to add the white meat near the end of the cooking cycle. Otherwise, it may just about disappear after several hours of cooking in liquid. Also, if you're not yet ready to prepare a dish with your leftover turkey, you should leave the turkey meat on the bones until you are about to use it. It will stay moister.

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Directory of Recipes Using Leftover Turkey

Turkey Burritos  |  Turkey Pot Pie  |  Turkey Mini-Pizzas  |  Turkey Waldorf Salad  |  Garlic Turkey Chowder  |  Turkey and Rice Casserole  |  Turkey and Mushroom Pot Pie


Aside from making sandwiches of it, leftover turkey can be put into so many main dishes. Here are a few easy "throw it together with what you've got on hand" recipes that are economical, nutritious, and tasty:

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The following Garlic Turkey Chowder recipe for using turkey leftovers is from the National Turkey Federation.

Garlic Turkey Chowder


Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Gently sauté the onion, celery, carrots, and potatoes for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add red pepper and garlic and sauté for 2 more minutes.

Sprinkle flour onto vegetables and stir to blend well. Cook for 2 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and gradually stir in the stock.

Return pan to heat and bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add diced turkey and corn. Add salt, pepper, and thyme and continue to simmer for 5-8 minutes or until potatoes are cooked and turkey is piping hot.

Stir in cream and adjust seasonings. Serve in warm soup bowls.

Serves 6.

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This recipe for Turkey and Rice Casserole is from the Family Circle's 1985 cookbook Perfect Poultry.

Turkey and Rice Casserole


Sauté the rice and vermicelli mixture and onions in the butter in a large skillet, stirring frequently until the vermicelli is light brown.

Add the boiling water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Stir once. Lower the heat; cover; simmer for 15 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.

Combine the turkey, sour cream, cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt and dill weed.

Spread the cooked rice mixture evenly over the bottom of a 2-quart shallow baking dish. Top with the turkey mixture. Sprinkle with the slivered almonds.

Bake in a hot oven (400 deg. F) until heated through, about 10 minutes.

Serves 4.

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The following recipe for Layered Gazpacho Salad is from the Jennie-O Turkey Store website.

Layered Turkey Gazpacho Salad


Reserve half the cucumber slices and 1/4 cup chopped tomato; set aside. In a glass or plastic bowl (metal can kill vitamins in produce), layer the lettuce, onion rings, remaining chopped tomato, remaining cucumber slices, bell pepper, and turkey.

Stir together sour cream and salsa. Spread mixture over turkey. Arrange reserved cucumber slices and tomato on top.

Serves 6.

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The following recipe for Turkey and Mushroom Potpie is from the Food & Wine website, by Diana Sturgis.

Note: This recipe is a bit more elegant and complicated than the turkey pot pie recipe above. It is pricier to make as well. One of the ingredients, finely chopped prosciutto (Italian salt-cured ham), can be expensive, although only a small amount is used. If necessary to cut food costs, you can assuredly substitute the prosciutto with any chopped country ham. Follow the same logic with the fresh shiitake mushrooms; other less expensive mushrooms can be used instead (particularly if you don't shop where fresh shiitake mushrooms are available). While the robust flavors of prosciutto and shiitake mushrooms are fabulous and distinctive, don't let their cost deter you in the making of this delicious turkey pot pie. Substitution (or omission, if necessary) is just fine and dandy to keep it within your food budget. Frugality first!

Turkey and Mushroom Pot Pie


Butter a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish. In a saucepan, combine the turkey stock, potatoes, thyme, and a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the white mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and sauté over moderately high heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat the process with 1 more tablespoon each of the butter and oil and the shiitakes. Add to the white mushrooms.

Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil. Add the onion and prosciutto and sauté over moderately high heat until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the mushrooms.

Strain the turkey stock into the skillet. Add the flour mixture and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring constantly. Add the turkey, potatoes, and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Spread the mixture in the baking dish and let cool.

Preheat the oven to 400°. If necessary, roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface to a 14-by-10-inch rectangle. Moisten the rim of the baking dish with water and cover the filling with the dough, pressing it firmly against the baking dish rim; tuck the edges under. Make a few slits in the pastry and brush with the beaten egg. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the top is golden. Let the pot pie stand for 10 minutes before serving.


IMPORTANT: Leftover turkey should be removed refrigerated in airtight containers or aluminum or plastic wrap within 2 hours of roasting. Leftovers can be safely kept in the refrigerator 3 to 4 days. Leftover turkey may be frozen for up to 4 months. Cooked turkey should not be left out of the refrigerator for longer than 2 hours, or food poisoning could occur.



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Family Circle's Perfect Poultry, Times Books, NY, 1985.
Jennie-O Turkey Store, Leftover Turkey Recipes (
Live Science, "Talking Turkey: How Much Do Americans Eat on Thanksgiving?", (, November 22, 2011.
National Turkey Federation, "Eat Turkey" (, 2008.
Sturgis, Diana, Food & Wine website, "Turkey and Mushroom Potpie," (, November 1997.
University of Illinois, Turkey for the Holidays - Turkey Facts (