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A cooked turkey is the centerpiece of many family dinner tables this season. Wendy White, Food Safety and Quality manager with Georgia Tech’s Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, offers food safety tips on thawing, cooking and storing leftovers. (GaMEP/Special Photo)

Focus on Food: Tips to protect the holidays through good food safety

By Wendy White  
Georgia Tech, GaMEP

The upcoming holiday season brings us closer to family, friends, and feasts as we celebrate. After a wonderful dinner, we dream of curling up on the couch to cheer on our favorite football team as the tryptophane surges through our system.

The dream never includes the harsh reality of spending the next day trapped in the bathroom, suffering from a foodborne illness. You want the day after Thanksgiving spent shopping and enjoying leftovers, not curled up on the couch with ginger ale and saltines. Here are a few tips to make your holiday season much more enjoyable by avoiding food safety fowls (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun).

Thawing a Turkey

The saying, “As American as apple pie,” should be replaced with, “As American as turkey,” because 88 percent of Americans eat them on Thanksgiving. Since our consumption is unusually high during this time, turkey production is stockpiled throughout the year and kept in frozen storage. Here are a few options to thaw your turkey safely this season. For those who plan ahead, the best thawing method is in the refrigerator. Place the bird on a sheet pan or tray and allow about a day of thawing for every four to five pounds of meat. The turkey can be stored in the refrigerator for two days after thawing.

A quicker method is to submerge the bird in cold water inside a clean container. Ensure the water is changed every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes of thawing time for every pound of meat. Turkeys can even be thawed in the microwave, but beforehand, remove the plastic wrapping, temperature button, and any other plastic packaging. Cold water and microwave methods should only be used if the turkey is cooked that day.

When you are done thawing, take the gizzards out of the cavity before cooking, and don’t rinse the raw bird with water. It’s a myth that it helps rinse off bacteria; it can actually make things worse by causing cross-contamination in the kitchen. Avoid cross-contamination using separate cutting boards, knives, and other tools when preparing raw meat and poultry. Ensure to wash your hands with soap and hot water afterward properly.

In an emergency, you can roast a frozen turkey. It’ll just take about 50 percent longer in the oven. Frying is one cooking method that should never be done with a frozen bird. YouTube is full of scary videos of people starting fires by trying to deep-fry frozen turkeys.

Turning-up the Heat on Turkey Dinner

Turkeys might be the other, other, white meat, but they’re not just for Thanksgiving. Though Americans eat an impressive 46 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving, they also eat 22 million pounds on Christmas and 19 million on Easter. This wasn’t always the case. Turkey consumption has increased nearly 110 percent since 1970.

When roasting at 325 F, the general rule for determining cooking time is 15 minutes for every pound of an unstuffed bird and a few minutes longer (about 17 minutes per pound) for a stuffed bird. Unfortunately, the food pathogen Salmonella is just as common in raw turkeys as in raw chicken, so thorough cooking is essential. Your most important food safety tool in the kitchen is the meat thermometer.

When in doubt, ensure the bird is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F. You can’t always trust the button to pop up when the bird is done. Insert the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast meat, the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the center of the stuffing to ensure it’s done.

Treat Your Leftovers Right

The danger doesn’t end when the pumpkin pie is eaten. Leftovers that aren’t handled properly can make people sick. After being served, food shouldn’t hang out on the counter for more than two hours before being packed and put in the refrigerator. If you have a large quantity of food, put it in shallow containers to cool faster.

Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three or four days. Then, they need to be transferred to the freezer. Frozen food can be kept in the freezer indefinitely but can lose moisture and flavor if stored for over four months. Be sure also to reheat food to an internal temperature of 165 F.

Stay Safe This Holiday Season

The holidays are stressful enough, so be sure to keep these food safety tips in mind when preparing dinner. Use separate cutting boards and knives when preparing raw meat and remember to wash your hands often. Thaw and cook your birds correctly, and don’t wait too late to put up leftovers. For more information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854.

Wendy White is the industry manager for Food Safety and Quality with Georgia Tech’s Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP). She has expertise in food safety plans, pre-requisite programs, recall/crisis planning, supply chain management, and internal auditing, among other food safety and quality areas. Learn more by visiting