Thanksgiving hosts have a lot to worry about when preparing the year’s most anticipated feast; lumpy gravy, broken wine corks, unexpected dinner guests. But while there are plenty of things that can go wrong, there is only one thing that can truly turn the holiday merriment into misery.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, about 48 million people will get sick from a foodborne illness. While summer’s picnics and camps are prime time for foodborne illness, these diseases also spike sharply during the holiday season.
Marianne H. Gravely, Senior Technical Information Specialist of the Food Safety Education Staff at the USDA, gives us some tips on making sure you prepare a Thanksgiving feast that’s memorable — for all the right reasons.
Storing a turkey before Thanksgiving
Start by cleaning out your refrigerator. Whether you’re making all of the dishes yourself, or guests are bringing some to your house, all this food needs a place to be safely stored, and that might mean the fridge, said Gravely. And don’t think just because it’s chilly outside your deck can become an extra refrigerator.
“Outside is not reliably cold no matter where you live. Not even in Pittsburgh. Not even if there is snow on the ground,” said Gravely. “It’s not safe to store food outside. If you don’t have enough room, fill some coolers with ice and set those outside.”
Keep your turkey in the freezer until ready to thaw. Freezers are too cold for food poisoning bacteria to grow.
And if food safety isn’t enough to convince you, maybe safety for your food is.
“One of our most famous calls was from a couple who put their turkey on the back deck and a raccoon got to it.”
THAWING A TURKEY
Gravely said having a plan is the first step toward holiday food safety.
Frozen: The USDA recommends allowing 24 hours to thaw every four to five pounds of bird. If you figure on the generally accepted average of one pound of turkey per person, you can start to make a plan. If you have ten people coming to your dinner, you could have a 10 pound turkey. You would want to give at least 48 hours for the bird to thaw in the fridge. Tack on an extra day or two just to make sure. It will be fine in the fridge up to two extra days. Never leave it on the counter.
Fresh: If you prefer to buy a fresh turkey, you should do so on the Tuesday before the Thursday holiday. A fresh turkey can stay safe in the fridge for up to two days.
preparing a turkey
“Let the packaged turkey drain into the sink before you get started. But whatever you do, DO NOT wash your turkey,” Gravely stresses. “Bacteria can spread up to two feet around your kitchen once you start.”
Gravely suggests removing your towels, soap and other items away from the sink so you don’t splash on them while you’re moving the turkey around your kitchen.
“Cooking kills everything, so there is no need to wash a turkey. You’ll only get the bacteria around your kitchen and potentially cause problems that way.”
Separate any cutting boards, plates, tools and countertops you used. Wash items that touched the raw meat with soap and warm water. And, of course, wash your hands.
cooking a turkey
“We’re big advocates of using a food thermometer,” said Gravely. “It’s the only way to know food has reached its temperature.”
You’ll want to take the temperature of the turkey in three different spots: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing. You’ll want to cook at a higher temperature (at least 325 degrees), but all three areas need to reach at least 165 degrees for safe consumption. If you are cooking stuffing the bird, it too needs to reach 165 degrees. Some chefs recommend not stuffing the bird since the bird will cook faster if you don’t.
“One cooking method we really discourage is the 200 degrees overnight method,” said Gravely.
This method was popular decades ago, but is still passed down in some families.
“What they would do, would be to put the turkey in the oven at 200 degrees overnight and then when you wake up, it’s done. It takes too long to cook and spends too much time in the danger zone where bacteria can multiply,” warns Gravely. “The other problem, you wake up and the turkey is done and unless you’re eating it for breakfast, you have to refrigerate it and keep it cool and then reheat it for dinner.”
What’s better than Thanksgiving dinner? Leftovers. But only if they’re refrigerated no more than two hours after dinner.
“You want food to cool down as quickly as possible, so you should use small, shallow containers to package the extra food,” said Gravely.
Guests traveling with food on their way home should carry a cooler and frozen ice packs.
The turkey breast should be sliced up. The drumstick can stay in tact, but don’t put the whole bird in the fridge. It will take too long to cool off. Leftover turkey can be frozen for soups or casseroles later on, but be sure to do so no later than the Monday after the holiday.
Whatever hasn’t been eaten or frozen by Monday night should be thrown away.
The USDA receives lots of phone calls about turkeys people forgot they had stored in the deep freezer since last season.
Many people buy a second turkey when they’re on sale this time of year, or they’re gifted a second turkey at the office. Then they forget all about it until the holidays comes around once again.
Gravely said these turkeys are as good as ever.
“As long as it’s been frozen, it’s safe to eat. A turkey will keep its best quality for a full year, so even if you got it last Thanksgiving, it’s still good — and it will taste good too.”
Remember that foodborne illnesses can’t be tasted or smelled, the only way to avoid disease causing bacteria is to be careful when handling food for yourself and others. If you follow these safe practices and all your guests enjoy their meal, you might just get invited to do it all again next year.