How to Tell If Ground Turkey Is Bad (Because Sometimes It’s Not Obvious)

how to tell if ground turkey is bad: greek turkey burgers
Photo: Liz Andrew/Styling: Erin McDowell

Versatile and quick-cooking, ground turkey is a staple in our kitchen, whether it’s tossed into a pot of chili, doused in spicy-sweet sauce and made into lettuce wraps or shaped into tender meatballs. The only time we won’t sing its praises? When it’s rotten. But you don’t need a PhD in food science to know how to tell if ground turkey is bad. Relying on a few of your senses (namely, sight, smell and touch) and keeping an eye on how long that pack of poultry has been in the fridge will help ensure your purchase is safe to eat. Here are the four signs to look out for.

How to Tell If Ground Turkey Is Bad

Step 1: Check the Date

The USDA recommends cooking (or freezing) raw, ground turkey within one or two days after purchasing or the “sell by” date printed on the package. So if your best-laid plans for Tuesday night turkey burgers were forgotten until Saturday, it’s unfortunately time to say goodbye. And what about frozen ground turkey? The same rules apply, but not until the meat is fully thawed. (And that can take 12 hours, if you do it safely in your refrigerator.)

Step 2: Look for Changes in Color

Fresh, raw ground turkey should have a pink, fleshy color. But as any poultry starts to go bad, it will start to turn an unpleasant shade of gray. If that pink hue starts to look slightly dull then it’s time to use up your ground turkey immediately, and if it has a gray tint (even just a slight one), then it’s time to toss it.

Step 3: Smell the Turkey

Listen, we know raw poultry is never going to smell like roses. But if you notice a sour, cloying or pungent odor, it might be beyond saving. Give it that ground turkey a whiff before tossing it in the skillet—if it smells at all strange, do not pass go.

Feel the Turkey

So your ground turkey passed the color and sniff tests, but you’re still not 100 percent sure if it’s gone bad. Your final safeguard is to open the package and touch the raw poultry. It should feel moist, but not slimy, sticky or spongy.

Plus, The One Thing You Absolutely Shouldn’t Do

According to the USDA, you should never taste food to determine its safety. (That’s just asking for trouble, no?)

And if you’re really stumped? Instead of risking it for the biscuit (er, E. coli), you can always give the USDA's toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline a ring at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), available year-round on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.

How to Safely Handle Ground Turkey to Prevent Spoilage

Two things we don’t love? Food waste and ruined dinner plans. Fortunately, it’s easy to ensure you don’t have to deal with spoiled ground turkey—buy the latest “sell by” date possible, store it in the refrigerator as soon as you bring it home from the grocery, and cook or freeze it within two days. Surprisingly, ground turkey will stay fresh in the freezer indefinitely. (At a proper freezer temperature of 0°F, bacteria can’t flourish and spoilage can’t happen.) But for the best texture and flavor, the USDA recommends using frozen ground turkey within one year.

When it comes dinnertime, continue those food safety practices by always cooking ground turkey until it reaches 165°F on a meat thermometer. Serve it immediately, and store leftovers promptly—small portions in the refrigerator will cool down the quickest. And you should never leave food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, lest you risk entering the “danger zone,” aka anywhere from 40°F to 140°F. That’s the sweet spot for foodborne illness (yikes).

Follow those easy tips and you’ll be in the clear—now, did we hear something about Greek turkey burgers?

37 Fancy Dinner Recipes You Can Make with a Pound of Ground Turkey

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City restaurants. She used to sling sugary desserts in a pastry kitchen, but now she’s an avid home cook and fanatic baker.


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...