Halloween was last month, but there are some scary things about Thanksgiving too . . . namely bacteria.
Whether your family recipe is to brine your turkey, or your Thanksgiving tradition is deep frying a turkey, the trick is to make sure your Thanksgiving treat doesn't become a Thanksgiving joke.
We're not talking about turkey meat's sleep-inducing tryptophan, that fine contributor to the Thanksgiving practice of gathering together on the couch and slipping into a "food coma" in front of the TV.
We're talking about the very real chance that a poorly-cooked turkey can actually make you and your guests sick. We're talking food-born illness.
Why Did the Turkey Cross (Contaminate) the Roast?
The first turkey-related mistake people often make is cross-contamination from raw meat. It's important to keep raw meat and poultry separate from fresh foods, which includes using separate cutting boards and cooking utensils for each type of food.
To further prevent the spread of bacteria, wash your hands and the cooking surfaces frequently, particularly between handling wet and dry ingredients. Note -- washing your hands does not mean quickly lathering them and rinsing. Completely cleaning your hands requires 20 seconds of soaping, which is about the length of two "Happy Birthday" songs (humming optional).
Think Before Stuffing That Stuffing
The part of the traditional Thanksgiving meal that has the greatest risk of harboring harmful bacteria is stuffing.
"The CDC tracks food poisoning, and it found that stuffing is an issue, due to its significant rates of spreading food-born illness," said Diane Van of the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The USDA recommends cooking the stuffing on its own instead of in the turkey. Even if you ignore that sound advice, the USDA advises against preparing stuffing ahead of time, which gives it more opportunity to gather bacteria. If you insist on doing so, make sure to keep the wet and dry ingredients separate until you're ready to cook, then refrigerate or freeze any leftover stuffing as soon as you begin baking.
The USDA publishes Thanksgiving meal safety tips annually to prevent the spread of foodborn illness, and this year it focused on stuffing.
"We've had a meat and poultry hotline for 23 years, and every year we put out a fact sheet and press release based on the questions we get on the hotline," explained Ms. Von. "The issues we address are based on the concerns the public has expressed and areas where we feel they need education."
The USDA's fact sheet stresses the importance of cooking stuffing to the proper temperature. To begin with, the USDA insists that turkey-buyers steer clear of fresh pre-stuffed birds, which spoil easily and are great hosts for bacteria. If you do buy a pre-stuffed turkey, buy a frozen one -- and don't thaw it until you're ready to cook.
To stuff or not to stuff? Cooking it separately makes it easier to check the stuffing's progress, while doing it in-bird requires special care to ensure the absence of bacteria. A "stuffing stuffer" must check not only the internal temperature of the turkey, but the temperature of its stuffing as well. The stuffing must reach a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as bacteria can still survive at a lower temperature.
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets published a helpful guide to cooking times for both stuffed and unstuffed turkeys, which can be found on its Web site. The turkey, stuffed or unstuffed, must reach the proper temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to be safely fully cooked. The proper cooking time for a turkey, which will allow you to reach this key temperature, is about 15 minutes per pound.
Then there's the worst-case scenario: starting a fire with your turkey.
The South Carolina Insurance News Service reported that the day with the most cooking fires -- three times the daily average -- is Thanksgiving. The organization is an information service that seeks to educate the public about insurance issues, and how to avoid those issues in the first place.
"Calls about fire claims usually go to the insurance companies. Our job is to educate consumers about how to prevent fires," said Executive Director Allison Love.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, cooking fires usually begin when the food is left unattended. Though indoor cooking can cause property damage and injury, outdoor cooking, particularly the use of turkey fryers, is more likely to cause a fire. The other risk of using a turkey fryer is injury due to the hot oil if the fryer tips over, overheats, or spills the oil, which can also be a cause of fire and property damage.
"The main way we do outreach is through the media, including television, press and radio, because it reaches far and wide," said Ms. Love. "This is the fourth year we've produced this specific type of press release on Thanksgiving and cooking." The article from the Insurance News Service has additional safety tips that include keeping flammable items away from the stove, keeping kids away from the kitchen/fryer, and keeping a fire extinguisher nearby.
Follow this advice and your guests will be truly thankful, perhaps not right away, but after they realize that you kept bacteria from ruining the holiday. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!
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