Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family and friends, enjoy the fall harvest, and to stuff our faces full of delicious food. No matter your specific traditions, I’m certain the stuffing-of-faces is common across all Thanksgiving tables.
I must confess, I’ve never prepared a full Thanksgiving meal although I have contributed dishes. When I cook any time of year, not just for Thanksgiving, I have two goals: 1) Make delicious food and 2) Not make people sick. Both require following some simple rules – for #1, a recipe. For #2, a set of rules that I’ve learned from my colleagues on the Food Safety Team at APHL. Rules that effectively put bacteria on a stake in your front yard as a warning to all other bacteria saying “You are not welcome here! You will be cooked properly!” Not following these rules means inviting Auntie Campylobacter and Cousin Salmonella to your table. Unless you would like to spend the best shopping weekend of the year doubled over with a fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, pay attention. And, truth be told, these rules don’t just apply to Thanksgiving.
Roughly half of all meat in the US is contaminated with some sort of bacteria. While that is pretty gross, it is also pretty easy to address.
- DO. NOT. RINSE. Did you hear me? Don’t listen to your grandmother and her grandmother and all the grandmothers who tell you to rinse your poultry. DO NOT RINSE YOUR POULTRY. I’ve got science on my side on this one, Grandma! Rinsing your poultry – any bird, not just turkey – can actually cause bacteria to aerosolize (how’s that for an image?) and spread around your kitchen up to three feet! Three feet! That’s really far! Within three feet of my sink, I have my spice rack, cooking utensils, coffee pot and my baby’s bottles sitting on a drying rack. What is within three feet of your sink? Yeah… gross, huh? Plus, it is completely unnecessary. Rinsing poultry does nothing to get rid of most bacteria – the bacteria that it does eliminate are now splashing around your kitchen. What does eliminate bacteria? Proper cooking (we’ll get to that). We aren’t the only ones who will tell you this. Our friend, USDA, agrees. And, from a cook’s perspective, you really want a dry skin on your poultry so it can get nice and crispy.
- Avoid cross contamination. When you handle that big beautiful bird, make sure nothing else is around. You don’t want any of those raw turkey juices getting on anything that you can’t immediately clean. If Tom needs to be trimmed, use a separate cutting board and knife than you plan to use for your veggies. Did you happen to see Dr. Richard Besser on The Chew last week talking about safe food handling? Cross contamination can happen to the best of us, but we should do everything we can to prevent it.
- Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. What was that? Wash your hands. You cannot wash your hands too much while handling raw meat. Think about everything you touch while preparing food – utensils, towels, the countertop, your clothes, your body (why does my nose always itch when I’m cutting up chicken?), even the soap dispenser. Washing your hands properly will help keep all that bacteria from making its way onto every item in your kitchen. And if it does get on another surface, wash it.
- Don’t thaw your turkeysicle on the counter. The raw turkey needs to be kept at 40 degrees. If you thaw it on the counter, the outside (the part that is defrosting the fastest) will likely get warmer than 40 degrees and therefore become more susceptible to bacteria. Thaw your turkey either in the fridge or in cold water. Yes, it takes a very long time to thaw a big bird that way so be prepared! Here is a handy chart with thawing times. Another good tip – put your turkey in a dish while it sits in the fridge. You would hate to find out about that tiny hole in the plastic while it is defrosting… a flood of raw turkey juices in your fridge is not so pretty. Er, so I’ve heard.
- Cook your turkey to a safe temperature – which also means getting a good meat thermometer. All poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees. We’ll talk about stuffing next, but if you plan to cook your stuffing inside of your turkey that means it also needs to be cooked to 165 degrees. It is that simple, folks. Pay no attention to those popper things that come in the turkey. Check the temperature yourself. Unlike with your kids, you actually want your turkey to have a fever of 165. Recipe
- Let’s talk about stuffing. First of all, I’m from the South where we call it dressing. For the sake of food safety, we should all call it dressing. Why? Because stuffing can be unsafe because it is stuffing. Let’s break this down… you fill the cavity of the bird with stuffing so that Tom’s delicious juices add great flavor to your stuffing. Correct? As we discussed above (see points one through, well, all of them), Tom’s juices are loaded with bacteria. Those bacteria are now in your stuffing in the center of the turkey, the part that is farthest from the heat source and therefore takes the longest to reach a safe temperature (165 degrees). So you have two choices. You could: 1) Cook the turkey to its perfect temperature while it is still perfectly moist, serving it with the stuffing that is not cooked to the perfect temperature and therefore at risk of carrying bacteria that is going to send your guests home with a party favor they did NOT ask for, or 2) Cook the bird and the stuffing until the stuffing in the center is cooked to a safe temperature thus overcooking and drying out your turkey. If I had to pick from those options – undercooked stuffing or overcooked turkey – I’d choose… tofuky. There are two secret options that mean everybody wins. Either 1) Cook your stuffing separately. Use a delicious, rich stock (chicken, turkey, or vegetable) to add the flavor you’re looking for. I promise it will taste good. Or 2) Cooking the stuffing in the bird, remove it, and continue cooking it outside of the turkey until it reaches a safe 165 degrees. Recipe
- Avoid BPAs. Now, this next “rule” is really more of a suggestion. I think by now most people know that canned goods have a liner that often contains Bisphenol A or BPA. We buy BPA free water bottles and BPA free toys for our kids yet somehow on Thanksgiving all of that knowledge of BPAs goes out the window because, goshdarnit, we Americans love our canned cranberry sauce. If it isn’t still in the shape of the can complete with rings, we don’t want it! Myself included! Well, not anymore. I didn’t order harmful chemicals with my cranberry sauce, thanks. Make it yourself from fresh or frozen cranberries. It is easy and delicious… and much safer. Recipe
Remember the two goals I mentioned at the beginning – making delicious food and not making people sick? They can both happen at the same time by following some simple rules. When it comes to safe food handling, it is all about awareness. Be aware of cross contamination, what you touch, and the internal temperature of your food. Follow these rules and your guests will be thankful that they didn’t learn the word “campylobacter” for the first time while at your house.