Preparing the Holiday Feast? Tips for Cooking the Meal Safely

Kimberly Bean
Kimberly Bean
Published on December 20, 2017

The most worrisome aspect of holiday cooking isn’t trying to find space in the oven for the bird and all the side dishes. According to the CDC, an estimated 1.2 million cases of salmonella infection occur each year in the U.S.

And salmonella isn’t the only bacteria you’ll find in our meat and poultry. Other common culprits causing food-borne illnesses are:

  • Campylobacter
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • E.coli
  • Listeria
  • Norovirus

Food handling and cooking it to the proper internal temperature are two of the most important things you’ll need to think about while preparing your holiday feasts.

Be careful when thawing the turkey

Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, recommends the USDA. They caution that as soon as the bird begins to thaw, “any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again” in warmer temperatures.

Place the packaged turkey in a bag or other container to prevent the juices from landing on other foods. Ensure that the refrigerator’s temperature remains below 40 degrees F at all times.

Although the USDA says that a turkey needs 24 hours thawing time for each 5 pounds in weight, they offer up this handy guideline:

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days

Never leave frozen turkey on the kitchen counter to thaw.

Start with a clean work surface

You can avoid transferring bacteria that may be on counters and cutting boards to the food you’re preparing by washing all work surfaces with hot, soapy water. Rinse well, and use a clean towel to dry.

Next, turn your attention to the tools you’ll need to prepare the meal. Use a dedicated cutting board for meat and poultry and another for produce. Wash knives, bowls, serving pieces, and storage containers should be washed in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher.

Then, wash your hands well and wash them frequently – especially after you’ve handled raw meat or poultry.

Rinse produce

Produce should be rinsed before you cook with it. The best way to clean produce with firm skin, such as cucumbers, carrots, and apples is with under running water with a clean vegetable scrubber. Peas, lettuce, and fruits with soft skins can be tossed into a colander and rinsed under running water.

Wash vegetables you’re planning to peel, like potatoes, too. Bacteria from the vegetable’s skin can be transferred to the vegetable while peeling.

Cook to the proper temperature

Turkeys need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F and “the juices rarely run clean at this temperature,” say the experts at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “When they do,” they continue, “the bird is often overcooked.”

The only way to determine if a turkey is cooked to a safe temperature is with a food thermometer. HHS recommends testing in three locations: The “innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast.” Make sure that the thermometer reads at least 165 degrees F in each location.

Take care with leftovers

The CDC says that the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning can be chalked up to Clostridium perfringens. “This is bacteria that “grows in cooked foods left at room temperature.” And, as expected, hospitals and doctors see most sufferers in November and December. You should never leave leftovers at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Additional tips

  • Never use unwashed containers or plates that held raw turkey to hold cooked food.
  • The same holds true for utensils – use clean ones for cooked food.
  • Although the USDA recommends thawing the turkey in the refrigerator, it can also be thawed in cold water or in the microwave. Follow the instructions on the USDA’s website.
  • Avoid rinsing the turkey before stuffing. “The surface of the turkey may have bacteria on it,” Diane Van, Manager of USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline told ABC News, and washing the turkey may spread the organisms around the kitchen.

For questions and concerns regarding food safety, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Yes, they’ll be manning the phones even on the holidays, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m.

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