You’ve carefully laid all the plans for a lavish holiday party for out-of-town family and guests, replete with all of those things that make the holidays so special — baked turkey, ham and finger foods.
Congratulations. But before you get too carried away commending yourself on this awesome feat, answer this question: Have you taken adequate precautions against foodborne illness?
Millions of Americans, in their haste to keep pace with all the demands of the holiday season, are likely to overlook basic hygienic practices around the kitchen. The fact only one drop of juice from a contaminated turkey or chicken is enough to cause food poisoning is a strong incentive to follow the following practices carefully.
Wash Your Hands
Mom’s constant admonishment to wash your hands is the cornerstone of safe food handling and preparation. Hands should be washed a full 20 seconds before and after handling raw products.
Kitchen sinks should be used only for hand washing associated with food preparation. Hand washing related to other household chores, like gardening, should be confined to bathroom sinks.
Bar soaps should be kept clean and left on a soap dish that allows water to drain. Otherwise, the soap is liable to become contaminated with germs like any other kitchen item. Pump-action liquid soap dispensers provide strong protection against contamination.
Cross-contamination occurs when germs from one food are passed to another. This most often occurs when raw meat, poultry or seafood touch uncooked foods like salads and fruits. Cross-contamination can also occur when these foods come in contact with unwashed hands, utensils or countertops that have previously been used with raw meat products. This is why raw meat products should be stored on a plate or tray to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods.
Cutting boards for raw meat products should not be used for salads and other uncooked foods unless they have first been thoroughly sanitized. As an added precaution, finish preparing raw meat products and return them to the refrigerator or place them in the oven. Then, clean and sanitize your kitchen before starting work on other foods.
Dirty sponges, dishcloths and towels are breeding grounds for legions of harmful pathogens. Always use paper towels or freshly-cleaned cloths with soap and hot water to wipe kitchen surfaces.
The first rule of thumb when cooking a turkey is to allow sufficient time — up to four days, in some cases — for it to defrost in the refrigerator. Be sure to place the bird on a dish or tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to ensure none of the drippings come in contact with other foods while it defrosts.
The bird should be cooked within a day of defrosting. Before cooking, insert a meat thermometer into the turkey’s inner thigh closest to the breast to monitor its internal temperature. Whole turkeys should reach an internal temperature of between 160 and 165o F before serving.
Stuffing typically should be cooked separately from the turkey because by the time the temperature inside the turkey reaches a temperature hot enough to cook stuffing the turkey itself would be dried out. Stuffing needs to reach 165o which would take a long time inside the turkey.
Never use recipes calling for raw eggs. All egg dishes should be cooked until they reach 165o F.
During microwaving, make sure there are no cold spots in foods. For best results, cover, stir and rotate food for even cooking.
Sauces, soups and gravies should be brought to a boil before serving.
Leftovers should be heated to at least 165o F before serving.
Follow the Two-Hour Rule
Potluck dinners are especially popular during the holidays, but there is a big risk if the food is left out for more than a couple of hours. All perishables should be returned to the refrigerator after two hours. Be sure to divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Also, avoid stuffing the refrigerator. Cold air must circulate for the food to remain safe.
As an added precaution, make sure the refrigerator temperature is 40o F or below and 0o F or below in the freezer. Occasionally verify these temperatures with an appliance thermometer.
For questions on this article or anything related to food safety, preservation or preparation, contact your local County Extension Office or Angela Treadaway, Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety, Preservation and Safety, at (205) 410-3696.
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at (205) 410-3696 or your local County Extension office.