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The arrival of the fall and winter holiday season can bring lots of fun, food and feasting. But if food isn't handled or prepared properly, food poisoning can result, and festivity can quickly turn into calamity. Food poisoning is caused by toxins, created by bacteria, which in most cases are undetectable by sight, smell or taste. Millions of people are affected by food poisoning each year.
It is important to practice safe food handling and preparation methods throughout the year, but the hectic holidays can present even more possibilities for food poisoning at home: larger-than-usual meals often are being prepared; new recipes and cooking techniques may be tried; buffets may be set out for guests; large amounts of leftovers may remain for additional meals; food may be transported from one home to another, etc.
Of special concern this time of year is the increased risk of food poisoning associated with the popular custom of stuffing turkeys prior to cooking, a practice not recommend by food safety experts. With the potential for food poisoning increased during the holidays, it is especially important to remember safe food handling and preparation practices. Here are a few tips:
THAW TURKEY IN REFRIGERATOR, NOT ON THE COUNTER TOP
Room temperature encourages the growth of bacteria, so defrost your turkey in the refrigerator rather than on the counter top. Allow one day of defrosting for each five pounds of turkey weight. You can safely refrigerate the thawed turkey another day or two, but don't let the juices drip on other foods. To reduce defrosting time, wrap the bird in a waterproof plastic bag and submerge it in cold water. Cold water slows the bacterial growth that may occur in the thawed outer portions while the inner areas are still thawing. Change the water every 30 minutes.
COOK THE STUFFING SEPARATE FROM THE TURKEY
Stuffing placed inside an uncooked turkey is susceptible to bacterial growth, and it is especially ill-advised to stuff an uncooked turkey before storing it in the refrigerator. Stuffing cooked inside a turkey may not get hot enough for any dangerous bacteria in it to be killed, even if the turkey itself is completely cooked and has reached the recommended internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
The tighter the turkey is stuffed the greater the risk, because the center is even more insulated during cooking from the bacteria-killing heat. If cooked long enough to kill the bacteria in the stuffing, the turkey will probably be drier than most people like. So cook the stuffing separate from the turkey. To increase flavor, use chicken broth instead of water in the stuffing recipe. Adding more onions or celery will increase the moisture content. Cover the dish for half the cooking time, then uncover it for browning.
DON'T INTERRUPT THE COOKING PROCESS
Interrupting the cooking process or cooking a turkey in stages promotes the growth of bacteria. This is because the turkey may have been heated enough to activate bacteria but not enough to kill them. So, once you've started cooking the turkey, continue the cooking process through completion. An unstuffed whole turkey should reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees. A stuffed whole turkey should reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees, with the stuffing reaching an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
CARVE TURKEY INTO SERVING SLICES BEFORE REFRIGERATING
Cooked, whole, stuffed turkeys don't store safely in the refrigerator. Remove the stuffing from a turkey cooked in advance and refrigerate it immediately. Allow the turkey juices to settle for 20 to 30 minutes, then carve the bird into serving slices, place them in shallow containers, cover and refrigerate. When it's time to serve, reheat the slices and the stuffing in a conventional or microwave oven to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
MAKE SURE COOKING TEMPERATURES ARE HIGH ENOUGH TO KILL BACTERIA
The temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit are the most dangerous for bacterial growth. Bacteria grow best, and some produce heat-resistant toxins, in this temperature range. Cooking a turkey at an oven temperature lower than 325 degrees is unsafe because it lets the bird and the stuffing remain in the danger zone too long. A meat thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the thigh next to the body but not touching the bone, is the best way to assure proper cooking to at least 180 degrees. Stuffing should be heated to at least 165 degrees.
TAKE EXTRA CARE WITH HOLIDAY BUFFETS
Be sure you have enough room in your refrigerator for the perishable foods you plan to serve at holiday buffets. Servings are best kept small and replenished directly from the refrigerator or stove. The longer food is kept out, especially beyond two hours, the greater the risk of food poisoning even if hot trays or chaffing dishes are used. Refrigerate perishables, especially the turkey and other meat and poultry products, as soon as possible after your guests have finished eating.
CAREFUL STORAGE OF LEFTOVERS MINIMIZES FOOD POISONING
Reheated leftover turkey and stuffing shouldn't be kept out to serve for more than two hours before being refrigerated or frozen. Perishable foods left at room temperature for longer than two hours are susceptible to bacteria that can multiply to dangerous levels and cause food poisoning. Leftover turkey can be safely refrigerated for three to four days, but stuffing and gravy should be used within a day or two. To speed up the cooling process, slice leftovers into serving sizes and store them in several small or shallow, covered containers.
WRAP FOOD PROPERLY TO PREVENT FREEZER BURN
If leftover turkey won't be used within three or four days, or stuffing within one or two, wrap them separately in freezer paper or heavy-duty foil and freeze them. Proper freezing prevents "freezer burn," the white dried-out patches on the surface of food that make it tough and tasteless. The oldest packages should be used first, so it's helpful to put a date on them before you freeze them. You can safely freeze turkey, stuffing and gravy for about a month. Frozen turkey and stuffing should be reheated to the proper temperatures before serving, and leftover gravy should be reheated to a rolling boil.
BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL WHEN MAKING HOMEMADE EGGNOG
Laying hens are suspected of transmitting bacteria directly into the interior of eggs before the shells are formed. Eggnog mixtures made from raw eggs should be cooked or microwaved to 160 degrees Fahrenheit or until it thickens enough to coat a spoon, then refrigerated at once. Pasteurized eggs are used in commercial eggnog so no cooking is necessary. Homemade eggnog using egg substitutes is also safe since these frozen commercial products have been pasteurized.
RAW EGGS IN HOLIDAY RECIPES REQUIRE SPECIAL CARE
The high temperatures required to cook cakes, cookies and candy containing raw eggs are sufficient to kill bacteria. However, the raw eggs in cookie dough may present a hazard, especially to children, the elderly and those with certain health problems, so uncooked cookie dough is not safe to eat. Using egg substitutes and margarine for Hollandaise sauce eliminates the hazard posed by raw eggs and offers the added benefit of no cholesterol. For chocolate mousse, melt the chocolate with the liquid called for in the recipe, add the eggs and heat gently to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services www.florida-agriculture.com
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