Nothing gets you into the holiday spirit like a feast with family and friends. But recent recalls and front page headlines (due to E. coli concerns) remind us that food safety basics should never be neglected. So, I put together some tips and resources to help make your holiday meals safe and healthy.
To prevent the spread of bacteria and food borne illnesses, always wash hands in hot soapy water before preparing food. Always wash hands before and after handling raw meat. Also wash cutting boards, knives, utensils and counter tops in hot soapy water after every use, taking extra care to keep meats, eggs and vegetables separated while you work to avoid cross-contamination. Ideally, use separate cutting boards for raw meats and replace any boards once they develop deep grooves, scratches or cuts where bacteria can hide. Sponges and towels are also breeding grounds for harmful pathogens and should be freshly washed with soap and hot water.
When preparing a frozen turkey, it should be thawed in the refrigerator at 40°F, never left out at room temperature where bacteria can multiply rapidly (allow 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey). It's best to thaw your turkey on the bottom shelf to avoid dripping the juices onto other foods. It can also be defrosted in its original leakproof wrapper in cold water, as long as the water is changed every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.
When cooking, use a food thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the inner thigh and the thickest part of the breast reaches 165°F before removing the turkey from the oven and let it stand 20 minutes before serving. Always wash the thermometer between temperature checks. Cooking turkey to a temperature of 165°F is especially important when serving children, the elderly, pregnant women and the immune compromised.
The safest way to cook stuffing is to prepare it separately, but if it is cooked inside the bird it should be moist and packed loosely. Whether cooked separately or inside the bird, stuffing should be cooked to at least 165°F. Place turkey in oven immediately after stuffing.
If you're having a buffet-style feast, make sure hot foods are kept hot (above 140°F) in a warming tray, chafing dish, or slow cooker. Likewise, cold foods should be kept cold (below 40°F) over ice. Otherwise, perishables, especially dishes containing meats and cheeses, should not be left out for more than two hours. It's a good idea to divide large portions of cooked foods into smaller portions, serving some and storing the rest to maintain safe temperatures. Hot food can either be kept warm in an oven set to between 200°F and 250°F, or it can be cooled and reheated before serving. To cool foods evenly, transfer items to shallow containers and store them in the freezer or refrigerator until they're served. Any reheated food should be brought to 165°F before serving. As your buffet platters empty, clear them away and serve fresh food on fresh dishes with clean serving utensils. Desserts made with eggs and milk, like pumpkin pie, must be refrigerated after baking.
Separate leftovers into shallow containers and cool quickly in the refrigerator, rather than leaving them out on the counter. All prepared foods should be covered to prevent cross-contamination. Be careful not to overload the fridge, as there must be enough room for cold air to circulate. Do not store perishable foods on the door of the fridge where the temperatures fluctuate more often. Turkey should be carved off the bone and stored in smaller portions, separate from stuffing and gravy. If wrapping turkey, avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic wrap, which contains plasticizing chemicals that may leach into meat. Instead, choose non-PVC brands such as Best Yet and Glad Cling Wrap. Also, when reheating leftovers in the microwave, put them in ovenproof glass or ceramic containers—even "microwave-safe" plastic containers may leach chemicals into food when heated.
Remember, always try to eat turkey leftovers within four days; stuffing and gravy within two.
And once all the work and preparation are out of the way, don't forget to relax and have a great holiday meal!