Few people want to dwell on the topic of food-borne illnesses, particularly now, during a season so enjoyably and emphatically food focused. But when it comes to the annual November exercise of giving thanks around the table, certainly most people will put continued good health on their lists.
"Some think they have never had food-borne illness," says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California-Davis. "But these same people recognize that they have had stomach flu, especially after holiday meals." This means that people are not properly handling sources of harmful bacteria, she says.
The health risks associated with lax preparation of meat and poultry, stuffing turkeys, and storing and reheating leftovers are real. But Thanksgiving dinner doesn't need to be approached with a sense of gloom. Many safety measures are a matter of common sense; a few are actually counterintuitive. But all of them are straightforward and, once learned, easy to turn into kitchen habits.
"Yes, it is distinctly safer to cook stuffing outside of the bird," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and the author of "What to Eat" (North Point; 2006), but it doesn't taste the same or as good." Such is the problem stuffing presents to cooks.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is resolute on this point, advising against cooking stuffing inside the bird. Tightly packed into the cavity, the mixture often lags behind in cooking time. When the bird is ready to come out of the oven, the stuffing may not be 165 degrees, the temperature at which most bacteria are bumped off.
Chefs who can't do without the flavorful juices the turkey cavity bestows on stuffing, however, do have ways of minimizing bacterial risks. When the stuffing is being prepared, combine warm ingredients, such as sauteed onions or celery, with cold ingredients only right before the turkey is stuffed. The reason: These hotter ingredients can raise the overall temperature of the stuffing mixture to the danger zone, 40 to 140 degrees, where many harmful bacteria thrive.
The bird should be stuffed (loosely) just minutes before it goes in the oven. Finally, the stuffing should reach 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer before it's brought to the table.
Prevailing wisdom used to be that turkeys required a preroast bath to wash away germs. Fresh or frozen, the bird was rinsed and dried, and then stuffed and cooked. Most food scientists now suggest forgoing this step. "I definitely recommend not washing the turkey," says Dean Cliver, a professor emeritus in the department of food science at the University of California-Davis. A properly cooked turkey will get hot enough to kill almost all bacteria. But a raw turkey doesn't have the safety benefits that come with oven time.
"Like it or not, the bird may well carry salmonella," Bruhn says. "And this bacteria is not to be fooled with." There are more deaths each year attributed to salmonella (about 600) than any other pathogen. Salmonella and campylobacter, another unsafe bacteria found in poultry, are easily transferred to hands, kitchen surfaces, linens, sponges, and foods. For this reason, it is better to pat the turkey dry with paper towels (that are then promptly discarded) than to give the bird a bath in the sink and potentially disperse bacteria throughout the kitchen.
After working with poultry, hands should be washed with antibacterial soap and then dried with paper towels. Cooks should resist the urge to blot hands dry on dish towels if they've come in contact with any meat.
Frozen turkey needs sufficient time to thaw in the refrigerator. A good rule of thumb is to thaw a turkey in its original wrapper in the bottom of the refrigerator in a pan (so it doesn't drip onto other foods), allowing 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds.
For many of us, not having enough space in the oven to cook everything simultaneously is a chronic holiday problem. So we cook our side dishes in advance, and reheat them just before mealtime. Precooked foods should be reheated until their internal temperature reaches the magic temperature of 165 degrees. "While some bacteria will be killed at much lower temperatures, at a temperature of 165 virtually all are killed," Nestle says.
If you're traveling to a holiday meal with side dishes, and it's less than 40 degrees outside, Bruhn suggests placing your cold dish in the trunk. No need for an insulated box. For a hot dish, wrap it in a towel or a blanket. The key is to avoid the 40- to 140-degree range. In other words, keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
The USDA recommends leaving holiday foods at room temperature for no more than two hours. So before all revelers have lapsed into a tryptophan haze, the hosts should spend a few minutes getting food off the sideboard and putting leftovers in order.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition-advocacy group, in Washington, D.C., estimates that more than half of all food-poisoning incidents associated with turkey are caused by improper cooling (as opposed to improper cooking). To minimize health risks, all stuffing should be removed from the cavity and all meat from the carcass as soon as possible. Refrigerate them separately in resealable plastic containers. Assuming turkey soup is on the horizon, the carcass should be covered in layers of plastic wrap and then a layer of foil and promptly refrigerated.
Side dishes should be transferred to resealable plastic containers and refrigerated as soon as possible. These storage containers should be no deeper than two inches, Bruhn says. (The shallow depth will allow food to cool quickly.) Most leftovers will last three to four days. And that may well be the holiday highlight: the next days' dabs of cranberry sauce, spoonfuls of gravy, and slices of burnished-skin bird.