Oftentimes, Thanksgiving means voluminous, tasty food.
But some of that is once-a-year or special dishes, occasionally made my people not too familiar with the kitchen. That leads to numerous potential pitfalls with food safety.
Among the basic tips to avoid those pitfalls and making your guests ill: allow plenty of time to thaw the bird, cook it to a high enough temperature, keep the knives and cutting boards clean (and separate, ideally) and don't lose track of time before you get leftovers in the refrigerator.
First, don't simply thaw the turkey on the counter before cooking it, says Londa Nwadike, consumer food safety specialist for University of Missouri Extension and Kansas State University.
For one, you can lose juices from the turkey that can then contaminate. Second, the outside will get too lukewarm while the outside is still frozen.
The key temperatures to remember Nwadike said, are 40 and 140 degrees. Don't let the bird get above 40 degrees when thawing, lest it start to introduce bacteria. Once food is out on the table, don't let it sit out more than two hours. The aim to limit the amount of time cooked food spends between 40 and 140 degrees.
“In between, we call that the danger zone,” Nwadike said.
Nwadike prefers to thaw the turkey in a deep pan in the refrigerator. For that method, allow one day for every five pounds. Some choose to thaw in sink full of cold water, and for that you should allow 30 minutes for every pound (five hours for a 10-pound bird, for example) and change the water frequently to keep it cold, she says.
Definitely don't just run water over the turkey to thaw or wash it, she says, as its wasteful for one and simply splashes around germs if washing it.
According to the USDA, cook the turkey in an oven of at least 325 degrees, allowing 3-4 hours for an unstuffed turkey of 12 to 14 pounds. Nwadike has suggested adding an extra half-hour to a recommended time just to be safe.
The key number here is 165 degrees – measuring deep in the meat with a dependable food thermometer, as well as the innermost part of a thigh and the innermost part of a wing. The pop-up ones often provided with a turkey simply measure the outside and aren't dependable, Nwadike said. If you've stuffed the bird, make sure that's at 165, as well.
If you choose to fry your turkey, that comes with its own set of additional safety reminders (see related story), but especially make sure it's thawed beforehand, and don't stuff that bird.
For cutting up things, make sure to have separate cutting boards for raw and cooked materials, and meat and vegetables. Nwadike said she likes to use different colored boards to help in that regard.
Don't forget afterward
In addition to making sure leftovers don't sit too long without heat or cooling, Nwadike recommends you portion out leftovers into smaller, shallow containers to allow for better cooling. If you've made a homemade pumpkin pie or some other custard pie, the 140-degree rule applies here, as well. Store-bought pumpkin pies have a preservative that makes the temperature rule less urgent, she said.
Another thing to remember, and sometimes overlooked: “Make sure your fridge has enough room and is cold enough,” Nwadike said. That wards off listeria.
If you didn't break down that turkey, remember that it retains heat well and takes up plenty of room.
Keep those plentiful but simple tips in mind, and Thanksgiving guests will have just full and not queasy stomachs.
(See an extended Examiner interview with Nwadike on The Examiner’s Facebook page.)