Part of the excitement of the holidays is the traditional foods of the season. However, some of these foods can pose hazards that can ruin more than just a holiday meal—they can cause serious illness and even death. Here are some tips on how to enjoy these foods safely.
Have a plan: preparing a meal for a large gathering or special occasion takes a bit of planning. Before buying your main course—turkey, ham, goose, roast, fish, etc.—make room in your refrigerator and find a plate or platter big enough upon which to put it so any leaking juices won’t contaminate other foods. At the store, buy the meat or seafood last, put it in a separate plastic bag to avoid contaminating other foods, and refrigerate it immediately when you get home. It’s best to buy your fresh meat only one to two days before you plan to cook it.
If you are combining food shopping with other party or holiday shopping, make the grocery store the last stop so the food will not sit in the car while you are searching for the perfect decorations or gifts.
Once you’ve purchased your meat, make sure you’re ready to prepare it safely. Clear and thoroughly clean the counter, as well as any specialty cooking equipment that you might not have used since your last special gathering (basters, etc.). Clean everything, including sponges and hands, that comes in contact with the raw meat or its juice immediately with hot, soapy water. Sanitize sponges by running them through your dishwasher, boiling them on the stove, or heating them in the microwave.
When your special meal involves the elderly, children, or people with weakened immune systems, frozen meat (like turkey) can reduce the chances of introducing harmful bacteria. But frozen meat requires time to defrost. The safest way is in the refrigerator, but keep in mind that you will need to allow 24 hours of defrosting for every five pounds of meat. For Thanksgiving, that means that you would need to start defrosting a 20-pound frozen turkey the previous Sunday. Turkeys wrapped in leak-proof plastic can be defrosted in cold water, but the water should be changed every 30 minutes, and allow 30 minutes of defrosting per pound of turkey. A microwave is too small to use for defrosting most large cuts of meat, including turkeys. In any case, don’t defrost the turkey on the counter. Be sure to cook the meat as soon as it is thawed (but after removing any plastic wrapping).
When cooking any meat, always use a meat thermometer. Even if a turkey has a pop-up thermometer, it’s a good idea to verify the temperature with a conventional meat thermometer, such as a dial oven-safe, dial instant-read or digital instant-read thermometer. If you don’t have one, buy one at the grocery store or hardware store. For a typical turkey, set the oven no lower than 325˚F and cook the turkey to 165˚F, taking the reading in the thickest part of the thigh.
Your efforts have paid off. The meal is beautiful, and your guests are duly impressed. To keep the food safe, make sure it isn’t left out for longer than two hours. If you’re having a buffet, don’t serve all the food at once. Keep the second and third servings either above 140˚F in the oven or below 40˚F in the refrigerator. Whenever possible, put additional food out on clean platters instead of adding it to the platters already on the table.
Take-out food: More and more busy people are opting for pre-cooked holiday or entertaining meals. Be sure to keep the meat and other hot foods at 140˚F or above if you will be eating them within two hours of picking them up. Other cold foods, such as salads, should be kept in the refrigerator at or below 40˚F until you are ready to eat them. If you will be eating dinner more than two hours later, you should dismantle your feast, refrigerate it, and reheat it in the same manner as with leftovers.
Stuffing: For many people, stuffing is the best part of a holiday meal. But if it’s cooked inside a bird, stuffing is in contact with potentially contaminated raw poultry juices. The safest way to cook stuffing is on the stove or in the oven, but separate from the turkey. If cooking the stuffing inside the bird, loosely stuff the turkey just before you put it in the oven, with three-quarters of a cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165˚F. If the turkey is done but the stuffing hasn’t reached 165˚F, scoop the stuffing out and finish cooking it on the stovetop or separately in the oven. If you think a stuffed bird tastes better, make a batch of stuffing just for flavoring the bird and a separate batch for safe eating. Keep in mind, a pop-up thermometer that comes with a turkey won’t tell you the temperature of the stuffing (and shouldn’t be relied on for the temperature of the meat, either). Avoid pre-stuffed fresh turkeys.
Cider: Unpasteurized apple cider is another holiday food that may contain harmful bacteria. Check the label to see if the cider is pasteurized or not. If serving cider to the elderly, children, or those with weakened immune systems, buy pasteurized apple cider. If you want to buy unpasteurized cider or are unsure if the cider is pasteurized, mull the cider by heating it to boiling. Allow it to cool enough to drink and then serve it warm or cold.
Eggnog: If homemade, this creamy treat could be contaminated with bacteria found in raw eggs. To be sure the eggnog is safe, use pasteurized egg products or buy ready-made eggnog (look for lower-fat brands), which is pasteurized. If you want to make eggnog with whole eggs safely, gradually heat the egg-milk mixture to 160˚F or until it coats a metal spoon.
Time and temperature: Although you might not feel like doing much after a big meal, it is important that you refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking the food. Bacteria multiply fastest at warm temperatures in the range above 40˚F and up to 140˚F. Therefore, leaving cooked food at room temperature is an invitation for bacteria like Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus to multiply in your food. If cooked food has been left out for more than two hours, throw it away. Reheating will not destroy the toxin produced by Staphylococcus aureus or the spores of Clostridium perfringens.
Dismantling the feast: Food should be chilled as quickly as possible in the refrigerator. Divide the meat into smaller pieces and store it separately from the stuffing and gravy. To drop the temperature fast, store leftovers to a depth of no more than about two inches. Shallow containers allow food to cool more evenly and quickly in the refrigerator or freezer.
Use refrigerated leftovers within four days, except stuffing and gravy, which should be used within two days. Or freeze the leftovers in shallow containers. If reheating leftovers, heat them to at least 165˚F and boil soups, sauces, and gravies.
Other relevant links:
• How to thoroughly clean your kitchen. See: Food Safety Tips for Cleaning Your Kitchen
• What foods should and shouldn’t you wash? See: Important Food Safety Tips for Washing Your Food
• Eating Out? Here’s how to eat safe at the salad bar. See: Food Safety at the Salad Bar