Holidays are the heyday for cooking cameos and loads of leftovers, both of which crack open the oven and refrigerator doors to food-borne illnesses.
"You may have a lot of people going into the kitchen who have never cooked a meal for a lot of people or only do it once a year," said Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit consumer safety organization. "You may have a lot of people handling food."
Bacteria can rear up anywhere along the path to the plate.
"The amount of bacteria in a food is dependent on time, temperature, moisture and how it has been handled," Feist said. "Manufacturers and food companies work to get safe food to the store, but it is a whole chain of prevention, and the consumer is at the end of that."
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Check out holidayfoodsafety.org, foodsafety.org and fightbac.org for more information on how long to plan for thawing and cooking, as well as recommended internal temperatures for various foods.
Here are 10 ways to reduce the risk of Tom Turkey's revenge:
1. Shopping: Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in your grocery cart, bags and refrigerator.
2. Thawing: Thaw the turkey in the fridge or in cold water, "but the cold water method requires you to be present to check it," Feist said. "Thawing in the fridge can take anywhere from one to five days depending on how big the turkey is." A larger turkey — 20 to 24 pounds — probably won't fit in the fridge. So if you're getting a large one, consider buying a fresh one, Feist suggested.
3. Use a meat thermometer: Novices often underestimate thawing time for their turkey and wind up cooking it when it's still frozen in the middle. They also often rely on the weight of the turkey to determine cooking time. That combination can result in an undercooked interior.
"The critical thing is to use a food thermometer," Feist said. "The turkey needs to be cooked to 165 degrees; that's the temperature at which bacteria would be killed." Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.
4. Unstuff it: "For optimum safety, the stuffing should be cooked separately, outside the turkey cavity," Feist said. "But for those who want to stuff their turkey, be aware that a stuffed turkey will take longer to reach 165, because you want the stuffing to reach 165 also."
5. Cleaning cutting boards and towels: Reserve one cutting board for raw meats and poultry, another for vegetables and fruit. Scientific evidence conflicts on whether wood or plastic cutting boards are safer. But clean boards thoroughly after each use and replace them when they become scarred, because bacteria can hide in the grooves.
Sponges and kitchen towels can be cross-contaminated easily.
"When a crowd is over and food preparation gets hectic, it can be more sanitary to use paper towels," Feist said. As for cleaning cutting boards and counters, "wash between every use with soap and warm water; it's going to reduce bacteria," Feist said. "If you've just handled three raw chickens and all kinds of stuff, you might want to sanitize with a very diluted bleach solution. People don't realize it doesn't take much bleach: 1 tablespoon to 1 gallon of water."
6. Washing produce: Feist says simply running tap water, with a vegetable brush for thicker-skinned fruits and vegetables, is sufficient. Blot dry. "People should not try to wash vegetables in standing water or use products that aren't intended to be consumed, like soap and bleach," Feist said.
7. To wash or not to wash poultry: "Washing raw poultry might seem like a good idea, but it is not a safety step," Feist said. "Don't wash raw poultry, we say, because you might actually create risk by spreading more bacteria around your kitchen. The 'kill' step for meat and poultry is cooking."
8. Storing and freezing leftovers: In general, perishable food shouldn't be out for more than two hours. As soon as dinner's over, put leftovers in the fridge or freezer to inhibit bacteria growth, even though many of us have been trained not to put hot food in the fridge. "It's fine to do so," Feist said. "The risk of leaving food out too long is greater than that of your fridge working a little harder to cool it." Use or freeze leftovers within four days. "There's a myth out there that if leftovers smell OK, they're OK to eat," Feist said. You can't smell, see or taste the bacteria that cause illness.
9. Have an appliance thermometer: Listeria can grow at cool but not cold temperatures, Feist said. So make sure the fridge is cold enough — at 40 degrees or below. "Everyone has this dial that says 1 through 8 and that tells you nothing about the actual temperature." If your fridge doesn't have a built-in thermometer, buy an inexpensive appliance thermometer.
10. Reheating leftovers: If you're thawing leftovers, put them in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave; never at room temperature. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately. Whether they're taken from the fridge or freezer, bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil when reheating. Heat other leftovers thoroughly (to 165 degrees for turkey).