Winter brings plenty of occasions for special, home-prepared meals. As the daylight hours shorten and the temperature drops, we look forward to cozy gatherings and the comfort of many traditional and savory holiday foods.
A few of us, however, may associate the holiday meal with some unpleasant side effects. If you saw the movie “The Accidental Tourist,” you know what I mean. This family knew that partaking in the lovingly prepared meal would inevitably result in symptoms of foodborne illness. When your post-holiday experience involves gastric or intestinal distress, the traditional turkey is most often to blame.
The “Accidental Tourist” was a humorous movie, but foodborne illness is anything but funny. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are as many as 76 million cases of foodborne illness annually. Knowing exactly how many cases is difficult because the symptoms may occur as many as 72 hours after eating improperly prepared or mishandled food. It’s also hard to determine the number of cases because most people recover within a few days and do not seek help for the problem.
But foodborne illnesses can make vulnerable individuals very sick and may even be fatal. Symptoms vary, but may include headaches, fevers, diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. Infants, young children, seniors and anyone with a lowered immune system are considered at-risk for serious side effects if they consume contaminated foods.
Two key areas of food handling and preparation will ensure that your family enjoys the holiday: protecting foods from contamination, and controlling temperature during storing, defrosting and cooking. Refrigerator thermometers and quick-read food thermometers are essential tools for a safety-conscious cook.
Protecting your food from contamination means washing your hands before and during preparation, and keeping work and storage areas clean. Raw poultry, fish, shellfish or meats should not be allowed to drip onto other foods while in your refrigerator. Place them on a baking sheet or in another container while defrosting them in the refrigerator. Knives, cutting boards, sinks and countertops should be cleaned and sanitized after contact with raw animal products.
Controlling temperature means keeping raw foods and leftovers below 40 degrees and cooking the turkey and stuffing to the recommended internal temperature. For the sake of food safety, invest in a refrigerator thermometer and a quick-read food thermometer. Always keep one thermometer in your refrigerator, and use another to test the turkey for doneness.
Plan ahead so that you have time to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. A turkey may be defrosted in very cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Turkey may also be defrosted in a microwave. With these two methods, the turkey must be cooked as soon as it is defrosted; it should not be refrozen.
The stuffing or dressing may be nearly as important a part of the meal as the turkey. Current guidelines recommend cooking your stuffing in a pan separate from your turkey. If it just wouldn’t taste as good without the stuffing, stuff the breast cavity loosely immediately before you put the turkey in the oven. When testing for doneness, use a thermometer to check the stuffing as well as the turkey. The stuffing temperature should be 165 degrees.
To protect your loved ones and provide a meal that is memorable only for its wonderful taste, use a food thermometer and cook your turkey or roast to a safe internal temperature. Turkeys are usually cooked in a 325-degree oven. Your turkey is safe to eat when the internal temperature is 165 degrees. Schedule enough time to bake your turkey so that you aren’t tempted to take it out of the oven too soon.
The turkey’s temperature should be checked in more than one part of the turkey. If you use an in-oven type of thermometer or if your turkey has a pop-up thermometer, you must still check the thickest part of the thigh joint, the thickest part of the breast and the stuffing. Put leftovers away quickly in shallow pans to allow for rapid cooling. Leftovers that have been at room temperature for more than two hours should be thrown away.
You can find additional information about food safety and turkey cooking at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection website at www.fsis.usda.gov or on the Extension publication, “Serving Turkey Safely,” which is available at http://bit.ly/extsafeturkey.
Leslie Shallcross is the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at (907)474-2426 or firstname.lastname@example.org.