Remember food safety during holiday season

  • Published
  • By Kay Blakley
  • Defense Commissary Agency
Sharing holiday meals with friends and family is an important part of the holiday season. Do partake of the season's merriment, but don't invite food poisoning to join the party by using careless food-handling practices. With a little bit of care and knowledge, foodborne illness is almost entirely preventable. Consider these four tips: 

1. Cook thoroughly: If a golden-brown, whole turkey will be the centerpiece of your holiday table, a meat thermometer should be among your "must-have" kitchen utensils. It's the only sure way to tell if food has reached the desired state of doneness and a temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria. Use an oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit and continue to roast until the thermometer shows a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. This is the lowest temperature at which bacteria and viruses are destroyed, according to food safety experts. However, for reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook turkey to the traditional temperature levels of 175 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the thigh and 165 to 170 in the breast. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and in the thickest part of the breast. Make sure the thermometer is not touching bone, fat or gristle. For safety sake, it is best not to stuff the turkey, but to bake the stuffing separately in a casserole. If you simply must cook the stuffing inside the bird, check the stuffing temperature separately. Even if the turkey itself has reached the desired temperature, cooking must continue until the center of the stuffing has reached 165 degrees. 

2. Keep it clean: Wash your hands, including under your fingernails, thoroughly and often with soap and water. Remember that bacteria can enter the picture from numerous sources--handling the telephone, petting the dog, taking a bathroom break, wiping the baby's runny nose or brushing her hair out of her face, even handling dirty dishes. Wash up again after any of these or other interruptions, and dry hands thoroughly with a clean towel or paper towel. Change kitchen towels, sponges and dish cloths often. Bacteria can linger on linen used repeatedly between launderings. Always launder these items in hot water, because the cold water wash may not kill all the bacteria. Use paper towels to wipe counters and floor spills. Wash countertops, cutting boards and utensils in hot soapy water between each step in food preparation. Be sure dishes are fully clean and dry before putting them away. Even tiny bits of food soil along with moisture trapped between the dishes sets up a perfect environment for bacteria to grow. 

3. Separate raw and cooked foods: Experts agree that accidental food-to-food or surface-to-food cross contamination is one of the biggest culprits in the spread of foodborne illness. For example, say some juice from your thawed turkey seeps onto the countertop or onto your cutting board. You wipe up the spill with a paper towel, then cut lettuce and other vegetables on the same contaminated countertop and cutting board. Although the surface may look clean, bacteria from the poultry may still be present--and may have transferred to the salad makings. Your friends and family eat the salad and now run the risk of becoming ill. 

Even more common is the following scenario. You prepare the turkey for roasting by removing the giblets and neck from inside the bird. You rub the inside cavity with salt, using your fingers and generously apply butter to the outside of the bird with, you guessed it, your bare hands! (We'll assume your hands and nails have been thoroughly scrubbed beforehand.) You lift the turkey into the roasting pan, wiping your hands on the kitchen towel several times throughout the process. You use that same towel to open the oven door and slide the turkey in. The pan of potatoes on top of the stove starts to boil over, so you use the towel as a potholder to lift the lid. As you turn down the heat with one hand, you pick up a spoon with the other hand, and give the pot a good stir. As you stir, you notice the yeast rolls set to rise on the back of the stove look a little dry, so you dampen the notorious towel with a little water from the faucet, and carefully lay it over the rolls. We could carry this on and on, but by now I'm sure you have the picture. You've contaminated half the kitchen by transferring any microscopic beings residing on or in the turkey, first to your hands, then to the towel and finally to the numerous other items you touched. We won't even mention the fire hazard you've created with the flammable towel so close to the heat of the stove. 

Be aware of cross-contamination possibilities every step of the way, beginning in your grocery basket, continuing to your meat or poultry thawing in the refrigerator and all the way through the meal preparation process. Wash hands and utensils often with soap and water. Use paper towels and dispose of them immediately after handling raw meat or poultry, and change cloth kitchen towels often. 

4. Refrigerate, thaw, serve and store foods properly: Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. No doubt you've heard this at least a hundred times, but good advice bears repeating. 

Follow these guidelines to assure food safety when preparing the holiday feast.
  • Thaw the turkey completely before cooking. Thawing in the refrigerator is best, but requires some planning--allow a minimum of five hours per pound thawing time. If planning failed, do a quick thaw by placing the turkey, in its original wrapper, in cold water. Allow 30 minutes per pound for thawing to take place and change the water every 25 to 30 minutes. 
  • Egg-based desserts such as pumpkin, pecan or sweet potato pie can be made a day ahead, but must be stored in the refrigerator. 
  • Cornbread dressing can be partially prepared a day ahead, as long as you refrigerate the ingredients separately--breadcrumbs and crumbled cornbread in one container, sauteed onions and celery in another and crisp crumbled bacon in yet another. Combine all ingredients with eggs, seasonings and broth the next day. Bake and serve immediately. 
  • Even deviled eggs can be made ahead following these safety precautions. Boil, peel and slice the eggs lengthwise. Refrigerate the egg whites in one container and the yolks in a separate container. Three to four hours before mealtime, mash the yolks with a fork and combine with mayonnaise and seasonings. Fill the egg whites with the yolk mixture and chill till serving time. 
  • If serving buffet style, keep foods warm with chafing dishes or warming trays. Cold foods should be kept on ice, if possible. 
  • Cover and refrigerate leftovers within two hours of serving. 
  • Store leftover meats or poultry in their own separate containers. Do not combine with other items such as gravy, dressing or vegetables in the same container. 
  • Use leftovers in a timely fashion. For most items this means within one to three days.