As the fall and winter holidays approach and we prepare for big meals with family and friends, keep in mind that no one wants to spend time being ill from improper food handling.
There are four basic steps to preventing food poisoning all year long: clean, separate, cook, chill. The following list is basic and NOT all inclusive.
Clean – Clean your hands, surfaces, and utensils with soap and water before cooking.
Separate – Use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between foods that are ready to eat, and raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.
Cook – Use a food thermometer to check the temperature. You cannot tell just by looking at the color and texture if food is fully cooked. Turkey should be cooked to 165° F.
Chill – Do not leave foods at room temperature more than two hours. After you are done eating, divide the remaining food into small containers and either refrigerate or freeze. Leftovers are safe in the refrigerator for up to four days.
For everything you might need to know about the basics of food handling and preparation, please visit www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics.
There are additional recommendations that apply specifically to this time of year when turkey is on many menus.
Thawing the turkey – Never thaw turkey on the counter, or even in a cold space like the garage. There are three ways to safely thaw a turkey.
Thawing in the refrigerator is the USDA recommended method because thawing will take place at a consistent, safe temperature. Leave the original wrapping on and place it into a pan on the lowest shelf of the fridge. You will need to allow 1 day for every 4-5 pounds of weight, and once thawed, it will remain safe in the fridge for 2 additional days. For example, a 16 pound turkey will need to thaw 4-6 days in the fridge before you want to cook it.
Cold water: keep turkey in its original wrapping or a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge in a large container of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. The turkey will thaw at a rate of 1 pound in 30 minutes, so you would need 8 hours to thaw that 16 pound turkey. You will also need to cook it immediately when it is thawed.
Microwave: if you have a large enough microwave (or small enough turkey) you can remove the wrapping and place the turkey on a microwave-safe dish. Follow the microwave instructions for what power level to use and how many minutes per pound it will take. The turkey will need to be rotated and flipped during thawing and cooked immediately.
It is safe to cook a frozen or partially frozen turkey so if you have not left enough time to fully thaw the turkey, don’t panic. It will just take longer to reach the safe internal temperature of 165°F.
It is NOT recommended to wash or rinse raw turkey. Cooking is the only way to kill bacteria and washing can result in splashing bacteria throughout the kitchen. If any raw turkey or juices come into contact with kitchen surfaces, clean immediately with hot, soapy water and then a sanitizer.
Testing the internal temperature of a turkey – use a meat thermometer and there are 3 locations that you need to check for the meat to have reached safe temperature: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. Avoid hitting any bone when you test.
If you plan to stuff your turkey, be aware that stuffing may not reach safe temperature at the same time as the turkey and undercooked stuffing can contaminate the cooked meat. If your stuffing recipe calls for any raw meats or shellfish, make sure those are cooked before they are stuffed into the turkey. Any stuffing prepared ahead of time needs to be cooked thoroughly and refrigerated in shallow containers until ready to go in the bird, and then the whole thing needs to be cooked immediately. Using a food thermometer, check that the internal temperature of both the turkey AND the stuffing has reached 165°F.
Taking care of leftovers – refrigerate or freeze leftover food within 2 hours of preparation. Anything left out at room temperature for longer than 4 hours should be discarded. Larger pieces of meat should be cut and stored in smaller containers so they cool more quickly. This will also help to quickly reheat them to the same 165°F safe temperature. Leftovers in the refrigerator should be eaten within 3-4 days. Frozen leftovers can be kept indefinitely but will taste best if used within 6 months. When thawing leftovers, the same safe methods that apply to the turkey apply to frozen food: refrigerator, cold water, or microwave.
Not all menus will feature turkey, and the details of thawing times and safe cooking temperatures may vary, but the handling of any meat requires the same precautions. A handy breakdown of food safety requirements by type of food can be found here: www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/food-safety-by-type-food
Another important factor to think about is how you will safely transport cooked food if you are eating away from home. The adage “keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold” is key. Food containers should be sealed, well wrapped, and packed in ways to maintain safe temperatures by using insulated bags and freezer packs for cold food. Make sure that food doesn’t remain in the “danger zone” (between 40°F and 140°F) for more than 2 hours. It may be safer to cook ahead of time, chill and store appropriately until the event, and then reheat to the safe internal temperature of 165°F.
Every year an estimated 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from a food-borne disease during the Thanksgiving weekend. Start your holiday season out in the happiest – and safest – way possible: by eating well, enjoying family and friends, and avoiding food poisoning.
For more information about food safety this season, and every season, visit www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/food-safety-by-events-and-seasons.