You’d be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t love a good Thanksgiving dinner – turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberries, the whole nine yards.
The last thing you want is to be the turkey who spoils Thanksgiving by making everyone sick because you didn’t handle their food safely. In fact, food handling errors and inadequate cooking are the most common problems behind poultry-associated foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And, when a holiday rolls around, the risk increases as people cook food in large quantities, creating an environment that is ripe for cross contamination as described later.
With that in mind, here are some tips to help keep everyone safe and happily stuffed.
There are three ways to safely thaw a turkey: in the fridge, in a sink of cold water that’s been changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave. This is because the turkey must maintain a safe temperature as it thaws. You should never leave your turkey on the counter to thaw – a turkey left out at room temperature for more than two hours leaves the bird ripe for bacterial growth.
Speaking of bacteria, remember that raw poultry can contaminate anything it touches. Keep your turkey separate from all other foods in the fridge, and use separate cutting boards and plates during preparation. Before cooking, you should always wash your hands so that you’re not spreading germs. During and after cooking, wash your hands, utensils, cutting boards and any cooking surfaces with hot, soapy water to prevent the spread of bacteria.
If you plan on stuffing your turkey, you’ll want to stuff it just before cooking. Place the completely-thawed turkey breast side up in an oven heated to 325 degrees; cooking time depends on the bird’s weight.
It’s important to cook food to the right internal temperature so that any potential germs or bacteria are killed off before the food is served. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature – a turkey’s safe temperature is 165 degrees. The best places on the bird to check temperature are the thickest portions of the breast, thigh and wing joint.
If you’ve stuffed your turkey, you’ll also want to make sure the stuffing has reached 165 degrees. The CDC says bacteria can survive in stuffing that hasn’t been cooked to at least 165, which can lead to food poisoning. Give the turkey at least 20 minutes of rest after removing it from the oven before you start emptying the stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat. This extra rest time helps the stuffing cook a little more so that it’s safe to eat.
A lesson on leftovers
Many of us have fond memories of leaving Grandma’s house with delicious Thanksgiving leftovers stuffed into a myriad of empty margarine tubs and plastic baggies. Don’t forget that food safety extends to leftovers.
Foods left to sit at room temperature are vulnerable to a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens, the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. Outbreaks related to this bacteria are most common in November and December, when we’re gathering for holiday meals.
To keep your leftovers safe from bacteria, refrigerate at 40 degrees or colder as soon as possible and within two hours of preparation. If the temperature outdoors is above 90 degrees – which is not out of the realm of possibility this far south – get your leftovers in the fridge within one hour. Be mindful of food storage times and know when to throw out leftovers.
Watch out for vomiting and abdominal cramps, the signs of food poisoning, within six to 24 hours after eating. However, if you’ve followed these guidelines you should have no reason to worry.
One last tip: wear stretchy pants. You’ll need them.
For more food safety tips, visit EatSafeLouisiana.