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Food Safety Q and A

Martha Stewart Living, November 2003

Good cooks know the basics: wash hands and surfaces often, be vigilant about cleanup, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. It's the details that sometimes puzzle us. Here, we make some sense of the lingering questions.

What's the best way to stuff a turkey?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture strongly advises against stuffing turkeys ahead of time. Warm stuffing should certainly not be put into a turkey until just before roasting. If the stuffing contains warm ingredients, such as sauteed onions or celery, get it into the bird and into the oven as soon as possible, says Marva Adams of the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline (888-674-6854). Chilling warm stuffing before cooking it in a turkey is not as safe because the stuffing will, through cooling and heating, spend too long at temperatures at which bacteria thrive (between 40 and 140 degrees). To be extra safe, you could bake the stuffing separately; a turkey that's not filled with stuffing actually cooks more quickly.

The USDA recommends cooking a whole turkey to an internal temperature of 180 degrees to ensure all parts are cooked. For an accurate check, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the bird's thigh, keeping it away from the bone (the temperature will rise slightly after you take the turkey out of the oven). Remove the stuffing as soon as the bird is done.

Once and for all, which is better: wooden or plastic cutting boards?
There's no proof that either is hands-down superior. The best way to determine which will work for you is by asking yourself how you plan to clean up afterward. Even when they've been nicked by knives, wooden boards can be washed effectively by hand with hot water and dishwashing detergent. Plastic boards, while they're still new and haven't yet been marked up, can also be washed well by hand. But once worn, they must be put in the dishwasher to be sufficiently cleaned, says Dean O. Cliver, a food-safety professor at the University of California at Davis. This is because a used plastic board is likely full of knife cuts that provide potentially harmful bacteria with hiding places -- spots that are unreachable without the benefit of a dishwasher. If those germs remain in the crevices, they can sneak into foods the next time you use the board.

A good way to prevent contamination is to have a few plastic boards in different colors to use with various foods. Reserve one for raw meats, poultry, and fish; another for vegetables and other ready-to-eat foods; and so on.

Which tools are most effective for cleanup?
Bacteria multiply in items that are damp and clogged with food, so set your sponges out to dry (rather than leaving them stuck beneath a pile of dishes) after each use. Scrub brushes offer the advantage of being fast-drying and easy to rinse clean -- but they aren't much use for wiping off countertops. For that, Cliver recommends using sponges or washcloths, and sterilizing them after every use in a microwave on high for 60 seconds.

When washing your dishes by hand, it is best to let them air dry because damp cloths can transfer bacteria to your clean dishes. Stack the wet dishes so water runs off and air can circulate around them.

What's the safest and easiest way to store leftovers?
As food cools, it enters the range of 40 to 140 degrees, at which bacteria thrive. Don't let it languish at those temperatures; aim to get what remains of your holiday meal into the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of serving. To keep your foods at the proper temperatures during dinner, use chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays so hot items stay hot; set containers of cold salads or other foods in bowls of ice to keep them chilled.

When packaging warm leftovers, use lidded containers 2 or 3 inches deep. Place the containers in the refrigerator (set no higher than 40 degrees) or freezer (no higher than zero) in the coldest spots (usually in the back), with an inch or two of space around each. This will promote quick, even cooling. Don't set large containers (such as a pot of hot stock) in the refrigerator because the contents will take too long to cool; instead, transfer hot foods to small, shallow storage containers, and then refrigerate.

Before putting leftover turkey away, take the meat off the bone to expedite cooling. You can store leftover turkey in the refrigerator for three or four days. Or leave it in the freezer for four to six months, labeling the containers to indicate what's inside and the date on which the food was made. (For other recommended storage times, see the chart below. Cut it out and hang it on your refrigerator, keeping in mind that freezing times are determined more by palatability than safety.)

As you reheat leftovers, make sure the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees; sauces, soups, and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil before re-serving. Perhaps most obvious, trust your senses: If the dish looks or smells unappetizing, throw it out.

Taking Food Temperatures
Ground beef, veal, lamb, or pork: 160 degrees
Beef, veal, or lamb roasts, steaks, or chops: 145 to 170 degrees
Pork roasts, steaks, or chops: 160 to 170 degrees
Ground chicken or turkey: 165 degrees
Whole chicken or turkey: 180 degrees
Stuffing, alone or in the bird: 165 degrees
Leftovers and casseroles: 165 degrees

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