ST. GEORGE — Thanksgiving is all about the feast. The task of preparing multiple holiday dishes is daunting enough without facing the prospect of guests getting sick. To help you prepare a perfect holiday dinner, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department and the Southern Nevada Health District are offering a few important tips for getting a handle on proper food preparation.
According to Robert Beers, environmental health director for the SUPHD, holiday cooks make three common mistakes.
“First is inadequate hand washing,” he said. “People aren’t washing their hands when they should.”
Beers said handling raw poultry requires thorough cleanup. Cutting boards, utensils and counter tops should be thoroughly cleaned following any contact with an uncooked turkey. Bacteria may be lurking where you least expect it.
“A lot of times you pull the turkey out of the container that it’s in and it’s splattering juices all over the place,” he said.
Inadequate cooking is the next most common problem.
“You want to make sure that poultry is cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. “The reason for that is just to kill any bacteria there.”
To ensure that your turkey is bacteria-free, Beers and the health department advise using an instant-read probe thermometer. This essential cooking tool is available in most grocery stores for about $10, Beers said.
Families who prefer having beef or pork as the centerpiece of their holiday meal should make sure their roast is cooked to a temperature of 155 degrees.
It may be surprising to some, but the third-most common error may be part of many families’ holiday tradition.
“The most common problem we see at the holiday time is people leaving turkeys, roasts, whatever, out on the counter all afternoon,” Beers said.
Leaving food out for relatives to munch on may be convenient, but it can and often does create a problem.
“It should either be held hot — at or above 135 degrees Fahrenheit — or kept in the refrigerator at or below 40 degrees,” he said.
So much for sneaking turkey and stuffing all afternoon long. And what about that delicious stuffing most Thanksgiving diners can’t live without?
“The hazard with stuffing is that if they stuff the inside of the turkey, that stuffing doesn’t get to 165 degrees,” Beers said. “If they want to do it that way, not only the turkey but the stuffing should get to 165 degrees as well.”
Beers admits the jury may still be out on whether or not the turkey should be stuffed at all.
“I’m pretty sure my wife stuffs our turkey and I’m okay with it because it’s really tasty and we do check with thermometers,” he said. “If somebody does stuff the turkey, the important thing is to cook it adequately and that’s most likely to happen if the stuffing isn’t completely cram-packed in there. Just stuff it loosely.”
Beers said any foods with meat products and even vegetables can have bacteria in them. Those traditional side dishes should be served immediately or kept at the proper temperature until they are served. Even dessert can be problematic.
“There’s probably some pies, even, that need to be refrigerated,” he said.
After spending all day preparing the feast, most holiday cooks want to sit down and enjoy the meal and their family. Doing dishes and putting food away can be the last thing on your mind when your house is full of guests.
“You want to visit,” Beers said. “You want to spend time with your family rather than taking care of the food, but the last thing you want to have is a houseful of sick guests.”
- Turkey must reach a minimal internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or above to ensure safety.
- Use a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey (the breast) to ensure the bird has reached the correct internal temperature (a stuffed turkey would require longer cooking times).
- Wash your hands, utensils, equipment and surfaces immediately after they have come into contact with raw turkey.
- Because stuffing is such an important item, many cooks are not sure if they should cook the bird with the stuffing inside or separately. The safest way to cook stuffing/dressing is to do so separately from the bird.
- If you decide to cook the stuffing inside the bird, the stuffing’s temperature should be 165 degrees Fahrenheit and the cooking time is longer.
- Cut the leftovers into small pieces or slice them before storing them. Place leftovers in the refrigerator in shallow containers.
- Leftover turkey and stuffing should be used within four days (right through the long weekend) and reheated to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or above. If frozen, leftovers can be enjoyed past the holiday.
- Discard any turkey, stuffing or gravy left out at room temperature longer than two hours or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Southwest Utah Public Health
- Southern Nevada Health District/Food Safety
- USDA Thanksgiving Tips
- Food Safety
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