For a Safe HolidayHoliday cooking can be incredibly hectic. Food is often all over the place and fridge space can be hard to come by. So, this time of year it’s particularly important important to remember that unsafe practices in the kitchen and improper food handling could be hazardous to your health. Here’s how to keep your food safe and your holiday gathering free from trips to the emergency room.
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HandlingAmericans are already washing and sanitizing their hands more these days to keep away the flu virus, but Thanksgiving and other holiday meal prep can also mean the spread of potentially-harmful bacteria on both raw and cooked food.
Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling different foods, advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture, especially when you’re handling raw meat.
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Keeping CoolYou can’t be completely sure that your refrigerator is at a temperature that’s safe for food storage, given that it’s opening and closing so frequently. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends using an appliance thermometer to verify that your fridge is at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the growth of bacteria on your food.
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Reserve the FridgeSince you’ll likely need room in your fridge for your turkey, various sides and dessert, you’ll need to make sure you have enough room to accommodate them. If you want to keep drinks cold, you may want to fill a cooler with ice in which to store them. That may also save trips to the fridge and reduce energy wasted from opening and closing it frequently.
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Thawing TimeIf you’re using a frozen turkey, plan your thaw, the USDA suggests. No frozen meat should be left out on a countertop to thaw, because it will likely sit in the temperature range where bacteria flourishes (between 40 and 140 degrees Farenheit). “The safest way to thaw a whole turkey is in the refrigerator,” the USDA notes on its Web site. As a guideline, turkeys should be given 24 hours to thaw for every four to five pounds.If you have a commercially-stuffed turkey, however, you should not thaw it, the USDA advises. You should actually cook it when the meat and the stuffing are frozen, until both the stuffing and the turkey have internal temperatires of 165 degrees.
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Taking TemperaturesThe pop-up timer that comes with your turkey may not be enough to tell you when it’s done. The USDA recommends having multiple food thermometers on hand while preparing Thanksgiving dinner.
“You will need to measure the temperature of your turkey, other meats, seafood, side dishes and casseroles. You should use a conventional thermometer, even if your turkey has a pop-up indicator,” the USDA advises.
Turkey should reach at least 165 degrees. Whole pieces of lamb, on the other had, should reach just 145 degrees, but when it’s ground, it should reach 160, the USDA notes.
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Stuffing SafetyFor some families, deep frying is one of the most celebrated and delicious ways to prepare a turkey. But in addition to possible oil spills and turkey fryer related fires, there could be microscopic hazards involved as well.
Deep frying a stuffed turkey could mean exposure to harmful bacteria because stuffing may not fully cooked when they turkey is done. “Because whole poultry fries very rapidly, sufficient heat may not be conducted to the center of the stuffing to destroy any bacteria that could be present,” The USDA says.
Deep frying a 10-pound turkey might only take 35 minutes, while it would take more than three hours to be fully cooked in a conventional oven. That may not be enough time for the stuffing to be fully cooked. In this case, it might be safer to prepare the stuffing separately.
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TowelsCleaning throughout the cooking process doesn’t only make later cleanup easier, it makes your kitchen operate faster and more safely. If you use paper towels, have plenty readily available for cleaning, drying hands and drying fresh fruits and vegetables, the USDA suggests.
If you prefer using cloth towels, have plenty available, and you might want to keep separate towels for separate purposes. Cloth towels should be washed often in hot water, according to government suggestions for food safety practices.
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The Two-Hour RuleCooked food should not stay out for more than two hours, food safety experts say. The USDA recommends using shallow storage containers with lids for storage in the fridge.
If your food is done early and you’re not ready to eat yet, it should be divided into smaller portions and refrigerated, the agency says. When you reheat turkey or stuffing, you should return it to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Ban Bacterial GiftsIf guests offer to bring a dish to the festivities, but you know that your refrigerator will be packed or they have a long commute ahead of them, ask them to bring items that don't require refrigeration, such as bread, rolls, drinks, cookies and other items that don’t have cream or egg fillings, the USDA says.
If you get fresh fruits or vegetables, the agency recommends cutting away and bruised areas because harmful bacteria can linger there.
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Raw MeatsWhile it might seem like a reasonable precautionary measure, health officials do not recommend washing raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or veal. It could actually increase your chances of cross contamination by transferring the bacteria on your hands to cooked or ready-to-eat foods. You may also want to use plastic gloves when handling raw meat to keep the bacteria off of your hands, but you’ll still need to wash your gloved hands frequently.
Meat packing materials should also be disposed of properly and countertops should be washed with hot, soapy water. Raw meat should be kept away from cooked meat and any other foods that will be eaten as is. If you’re putting meat in your stuffing, it should be cooked before you stuff the turkey, the USDA says, to avoid cross contamination.
Those who like oysters in their stuffing should also note the USDA’s warning about potentially deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria found in Gulf Coast Oysters and be sure to cook them before preparing their stuffing.
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