Safe Holiday Cooking Techniques
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Safe Holiday Cooking Techniques

It's not just restaurant meals: Home cooking can also cause food-related illnesses. Here's how to safeguard your delicious Thanksgiving feast.

Before You Start

  • Wash your hands with plenty of soap and warm water before, during, and after handling food.
  • To prevent bacteria-laden raw turkey juices from dripping on and contaminating other foods in the refrigerator, put the bird in a plastic bag and place it on a plate or tray on the lowest shelf.
  • Bacteria can also grow in a frozen bird if it is left to thaw in a warm room. Instead, defrost turkey in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave. The refrigerator takes the longest: 24 hours for every five pounds (2 1/2 days for a 12-pound bird). To thaw in cold water, submerge the turkey in a leak-proof bag, changing the water every half hour to make sure the water stays cold enough to keep the bird fresh. Figure on 30 minutes per pound (6 hours for that 12-pounder). If you use a microwave (6 minutes per pound on medium to low power -- check owner's manual for proper setting), roast immediately after thawing. Some parts may have become warm enough to encourage the growth of bacteria.
  • You don't have to rinse a turkey before cooking because heat kills bacteria. If you'd still rather run water over it, wash all splatters on the sink, faucets and counters with hot, soapy water to avoid contaminating other food.


Cooking Tips

  • Stuffing that's cooked inside the turkey often doesn't reach a high-enough temperature -- 165 degrees F. -- to kill bacteria. Bake separately in a casserole dish.
  • Use a food thermometer to tell you when the turkey's done, not a fork stuck in a thigh joint. Set your oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees F. The turkey's ready when the thermometer reads at least 165 degrees F. at the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast.
  • Don't brown or partially cook the turkey in advance, then store it in the fridge to finish up later. Cooling down and then reheating partially cooked meat encourages the growth of bacteria.
  • After roasting the turkey, place it on a clean platter, not the same one that held it raw.

Serving and Storing

  • Don't leave cooked food unrefrigerated longer than two hours.
  • Acidic foods such as cranberry sauce can pick up a metallic taste from foil. Use plastic wrap on plastic or glass containers.
  • Did you make a big pot of turkey-bone soup? Bring it to a rolling boil before serving.
  • Use refrigerated leftovers within four days. It's safe to eat them cold, but if you reheat, food should hit a bacteria-killing 165 degrees F.
  • Frozen leftovers keep almost indefinitely but taste best served within six months. Date packages.
  • Don't eat leftovers that stayed on the counter overnight, even if they look or smell fine. Bacteria grow rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees F. Some produce toxins not destroyed by additional cooking.
  • Why three containers are better than one: Bigger isn't better. If you end up with lots of leftovers, refrigerate or freeze them by dividing the food among multiple containers -- shallow is better than deep. The reason? Smaller or shallower containers increase the speed at which the stored food cools. The cooler it gets, the faster it stops the bacteria that inevitably grow in room-temperature food.


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2008.