The volume of food prepared for the holidays – often dishes seldom served the rest of year – highlights safety issues in the kitchen.
The basics: Allow plenty of time for thawing, keep your cutting boards and knives clean, cook to the right temperature, and get leftovers in the fridge fairly quickly to get them out of the 40-to-140 degree bacterial danger zone. Also, take special care if you plan to deep fry your turkey.
“Don’t just thaw (a turkey) on your countertop. That’s the big mistake,” said Londa Nwadike, consumer food safety specialist for University of Missouri Extension and Kansas State University.
Here’s how: Thaw in the refrigerator in a deep pan to collect juices. Give it at least 24 hours for every four to five pounds, and Nwadike says in her experience it always takes a little longer than you think.
Alternatively, you can thaw the bird in a sink with cold water that’s changed regularly. Don’t use warm water. It just puts the outer parts of the bird in the bacterial danger zone while other parts are still frozen.
Also, there’s no need to wash that raw turkey. Water splatters germs over a wide area of the kitchen. Those germs will be killed quickly once the bird is in the oven.
“We recommend not washing it,” Nwadike said.
Germs – specifically cross-contamination – also are an issue with cutting boards and knives. Keep cutting boards clean, and use a new, clean knife for each job.
“Don’t mix raw and cooked” on a cutting board, Nwadike said.
Feel the heat
Let’s talk about thermometers. They’re inexpensive and helpful. Get one for the refrigerator, and keep the refrigerator at 40 or colder, Nwadike said.
And have thermometers for cooking. Make sure yours is well calibrated. Stick it in a slurry of ice and water to find 32 degrees or in boiling water to find 212. If it’s off, that hexagonal nut on the back can be turned to properly calibrate the device. If you’ve had your cooking thermometer for a long time, maybe it needs to be replaced.
“You don’t have to pay a lot of money for a thermometer,” Nwadike said.
The key for turkeys is reaching 165 degrees – and that goes for the stuffing, too. So take the temperature in three places – the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of a thigh and the innermost part of a wing – as well as the stuffing.
Skip those pop-out devices that some turkeys come with. For one thing, they only measure the temperature near the surface.
“They are not very accurate,” Nwadike said.
Don’t forget the stuffing.
“You can stuff it inside the bird. … If you do it, make sure it’s packed loose,” she said. Make sure it’s moist (add butter if needed). The extra stuffing is baked in a casserole dish.
Temperature also matters with pies that have eggs, including pumpkin and pecan, so check them too.
“For eggs, the magic number is 160,” Nwadike said.
The Extension Service has a wealth of further information. Go to missouri.extension.edu and click “nutrition and health.”
It’s important to get leftovers in the refrigerator within a couple hours from the time they leave the oven or stovetop. Perishable food – not things such as bread, not whole and uncut produce but about everything else – can only safely be in the temperature range of 40 to 140 for about two hours before bacteria can take off. (That store-bought pumpkin pie has preservatives and is probably OK at room temperature, however, Nwadike said.)
Use shallow storage dishes, mindful of the fact that a whole turkey can retain heat for a long time.
“We would really recommend cutting that turkey down, cutting it into smaller pieces,” Nwadike said.
One thing Nwadike said some people seem to overlook is that all this food has to go somewhere and refrigerator space is limited.
“It’s important that you have enough room in your fridge for your turkey,”
A cooler with plenty of ice can help temporarily. Don’t open it too much.
“We don’t recommend using a cooler for more than about six hours,” she said.
Leftover turkey usually is good for three to four days in the refrigerator; gravy and stuffing are good one to two days.
The Missouri fire marshal points out that more home cooking fires happen on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year. So, some reminders:
• Have someone in the kitchen when there’s something on the stovetop. Have someone at home when there’s something in the oven. Keep children away from the stove, and turn handles inward to avoid spills.
• Be prepared for a kitchen fire. Have a good fire extinguisher. Don’t put water on a grease fire.
• Don’t overload electrical outlets.
• Take extra care if using a turkey fryer. Follow the manufacturer’s directions. Use it outdoors a safe distance from the house, the deck, the garage and trees. Set up on a flat, level surface. Make sure your turkey is completely thawed and dry before lowering it into the oil. Turn off the burner, lower the bird and then restart the burner. Don’t leave the fryer unattended, and keep children and pets a safe distance away.
For an entertaining and informative take on deep-frying a turkey safely, look for State Farm’s “Eat, Fry, Love” on YouTube.