As we have reached the time for holiday meals and parties, it is once again a good practice to review both the practical things, as well as the “sometimes hidden and forgotten secrets,” when it comes to keeping our food safe.
Some of the common items, such as washing hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before handling food, and rewashing them when any change of tasks takes place while preparing food (such as handling garbage, touching the dog or cat, picking up something that fell on the floor), are common instinct for many.
But there may be some other tips that make people say, “Oh, I never thought of that!”
The Food and Drug Administration likes to highlight four major categories, or should we say four specific verbs, when it comes to preparing food: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
The “clean” category includes the part about 20 second hand washing, but it also reminds us to clean all surfaces that will have contact with the food: such as countertops, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils. They should be washed with hot, soapy water as well.
But here’s an important thing to distinguish: while it is wise to rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool, running water (with perhaps a produce brush to remove stubborn surface dirt), it is not wise to rinse raw meat and poultry before cooking, as this can cause bacteria to spread to areas around the sink, such as countertops.
“Some people rinse out the cavity of the turkey or of a chicken, or even rinse their steaks,” says Will County Health Department Environmental Director Tom Casey. “But when you do that you are literally splashing the raw meat juices all over; in addition to on your hands, arms, and body.”
For “separate,” this is where you do not allow raw food that will be cooked to touch foods that will not be cooked until they are served. For example; raw eggs, meat, and poultry; as well as their juices; should be kept away from vegetables, salads, and other ready to eat items. It is best to keep all of this in mind through the entire process: from the purchase at the store, to the storing in the refrigerator, to the preparation and serving of the meal.
There should also be separate cutting boards for foods that are raw and for ready to eat foods. And another thing that could be an “oops, I forgot” moment: cooked meat, or anything that is ready to be served, should not be placed on an unwashed plate that has already held raw eggs, meat, poultry, or their juices. This will avoid cross-contamination.
For the “cook” category, temperature is extremely critical, especially when preparing a holiday turkey. A turkey should never be judged to be “done” or “not done” depending upon its color. Instead, a food thermometer should be used, and should be inserted into the innermost part of the thigh and wing away from the bone, as well as the thickest part of the breast. The temperature for both the turkey and stuffing (if the turkey is stuffed) should be a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
And speaking of stuffing, there’s another important area of caution that is often forgotten. Not only should the stuffing be the same temperature as the turkey when done cooking, but the turkey should be stuffed just prior to being placed in the oven. In addition, it should be stuffed rather loosely, at about ¾ cup of stuffing for each pound of the turkey.
Other “cook” items include bringing sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil when heating or reheating. And if you are making your own eggnog, or if you need raw eggs for a certain recipe; you should use pasteurized shell eggs, liquid or frozen pasteurized egg products, or powered egg whites. “The pasteurized shell eggs are where the eggs are heated up while still in the shell according to FDA regulation, and then preserved at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or less,” Casey explained. “You need to ask your grocer if they carry these products.”
And while on the topic of raw eggs: although this is a favorite of many kids, eating uncooked cookie dough is not safe, as it may contain raw eggs. “Yes, a lot of us did that,” Casey admits. “But it’s just not safe. And this goes for stuffing as well. Some people like to taste their stuffing after all the flavorings are added before it goes into the bird. But you are consuming raw stuffing, which commonly means you are eating raw eggs.”
For the “chill” category, the number one rule is to refrigerate leftovers and takeout foods within two hours of the meal’s conclusion. It is important to remember that room temperature falls right in the middle of the “danger zone” for bacteria to begin rapidly growing on food that’s left out. That danger zone is identified as anywhere between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Although we often love to leave leftovers and desserts out for a while as the evening at home moves into relaxation time, this includes pumpkin pie as well.
And getting back to the start of the process, food should not be defrosted at room temperature. You should defrost in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave as part of the cooking process. “The reason to use cold constantly running water,” Casey explained. “is to make sure particles are rinsed off and going down the drain. This is much safer than having something, like a turkey, thawing in stagnant water.”
And if you are using the fridge to defrost, it’s important to remember to not wait until the night before your meal. For example, a 20-pound turkey often takes four or five days of refrigeration to completely defrost.
What’s something else that is often not thought of? Always thaw raw meat, small or large, on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. This avoids the dripping of raw meat juices on to food that would be stored below.
For more advice on holiday food safety, you can go to the Food and Drug Administration https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm092815
or Centers for Disease Control https://www.cdc.gov/features/holidayfoodsafety/index.html