On Thanksgiving, the satisfied feeling of being fully fed is just as traditional as the turkey. For the Thanksgiving chef, food preparation can be both fulfilling and challenging. As if cooking to the tastes of numerous guests weren't difficult enough, it's also crucial to prepare food safely to protect your guests from food-borne illnesses caused by dangerous bacteria that can come from contaminated Thanksgiving foods.
Choose a Bird
Turkey can carry microorganisms that can provide nutrition to bacteria, so it's important to start safe. When shopping for your turkey, be sure that you choose your meat from a clean shelf or meat counter.
If you choose a frozen turkey, you'll be somewhat better protected from contamination because they are preserved at very cold temperatures, which prevent bacteria from growing and multiplying. Frozen foods should be kept no warmer than 0° F, while refrigerated foods should be kept at a recommended 40° F maximum.
Fresh turkey is more perishable than frozen turkey, so you can't wait as long to cook it. If you buy a fresh turkey, only do so a day or two before cooking. In the grocery store, wrap each perishable meat and poultry item separately to prevent any drippings from contaminating other foods you purchase. Avoid buying a pre-stuffed fresh turkey.
At home, you also want to avoid cross-contamination by keeping your preparing surface clean and not stirring cooked foods with utensils that make contact with uncooked food. Also, do not use a cleaning rag that might transfer bacteria from a contaminated surface to one that may make contact with food that is eaten raw.
Sometimes inexperienced chefs do not thaw a frozen turkey before cooking it. Unthawed turkey cooks faster on the outside, often leaving harmful bacteria inside. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 16- to 20-pound turkey, for example, should thaw for three to four days in a refrigerator at a maximum of 40° F.
If you forget to thaw the turkey, or don't have time, you can submerge the turkey in cold water that you change every 30 minutes. A good rule of thumb is 30 minutes for each pound of turkey. So, for a 16- to 20-pound turkey, you should thaw it in water for eight to 10 hours. Microwave thawing is safe if the turkey fits in the appliance; check the instructions for directions.
Cook with Care
Whether you have a frozen or fresh bird, don't forget to consider the impact of your pan on the way the turkey cooks. The pan affects the way heat circulates. A deeper pan will allow for a more even distribution and a dark roasting pan means a faster cooking.
Turkey temperature is crucial during the cooking process, so make sure that you have that all-important tool, an accurate meat thermometer. Even if your turkey has a pop-up indicator, it's safest to check different parts of the turkey for different temperatures using an internal food thermometer. The recommended temperatures for your turkey and stuffing are: 180°F at the innermost part of the thigh; 165°F at the center of the stuffing; 170°F if you are cooking a turkey breast alone.
Safety tips can also be helpful cooking tips. For example, you should cook your stuffing separately before stuffing the turkey. This separation is recommended from a health standpoint because it will reduce the risk of bacteria growing in the stuffed cavity of the bird. Cooking separately is also valuable advice for the chef because cooking the turkey separately will ensure the core reaches the ideal temperature.
Careful preparation and cooking can prevent your holiday festivities from resulting in a case of food poisoning. The symptoms of bacterial infection rarely last more than a day or two in healthy people. But they can last up to 10 days and can cause more serious consequences or even be fatal, especially in the very young, elderly or immunocompromised people. If your symptoms, which can include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and vomiting, are severe, you should see a doctor or get emergency help.
Most Thanksgiving dinners have a healthy outcome, however. Carefully following safety guidelines means your guests won't be concerned about their health, just your culinary talent.