According to the Centers for Disease Control, 5,000 deaths occur annually due to improperly cooked holiday food. The two main reasons why people become ill are eating foods that are not thoroughly cooked and improper refrigeration.
Within the last couple of years, CDC has investigated outbreaks of food-borne illness that were caused by bacteria in jalapeños, spinach, peanut butter, frozen pizza, frozen pot pies, and frozen beef patties.
Here are some helpful tips to keep your Thanksgiving Day dinner safe.
Turkey Basics: Safely Thaw, Prepare, Stuff, and Cook
When preparing a turkey, be aware of the four main safety issues: thawing, preparing, stuffing, and cooking to adequate temperature.
Thawing turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature. The “danger zone” is between 40 and 140°F — the temperature range where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely, but as soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again, if it is in the “danger zone.”
There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven.
Bacteria present on raw poultry can contaminate your hands, utensils, and work surfaces as you prepare the turkey. If these areas are not cleaned thoroughly before working with other foods, bacteria from the raw poultry can then be transferred to other foods. After working with raw poultry, always wash your hands, utensils, and work surfaces before they touch other foods.
For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole dish. However, if you place stuffing inside the turkey, do so just before cooking, and use a food thermometer. Make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165°F, possibly resulting in foodborne illness.
Food Thermometer Essential When Stuffing a Turkey
For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately. However, if stuffing a turkey, it’s essential to use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
Cooking a home-stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Even if the turkey itself has reached the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria that may be present.
Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 °F, possibly resulting in foodborne illness.
1. Prepare Stuffing Safely
If you plan to prepare stuffing using raw meat, poultry, or shellfish, you should cook these ingredients before stuffing the turkey to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from bacteria that may be found in raw ingredients. The wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. However, do not mix wet and dry ingredients until just before spooning the stuffing mixture into the turkey cavity.
If stuffing is prepared ahead of time, it must be cooked immediately and refrigerated in shallow containers. Do not stuff whole poultry with cooked stuffing.
2. Stuff Loosely
Do not cool the stuffing. Spoon it directly into the turkey cavity right after preparation. Stuff the turkey loosely — about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, because heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
Do not stuff turkeys to be grilled, smoked, fried, or microwaved.
3. Cook Immediately
Immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 °F.
4. Use a Food Thermometer
For safety and doneness, check the internal temperature of the turkey and stuffing with a food thermometer.
If the temperature of the turkey and the center of the stuffing have not reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, further cooking will be required. Do not remove the stuffing from the turkey before it reaches 165 °F because the undercooked stuffing could contaminate the cooked meat.
Continue to cook the turkey until the stuffing is safely cooked.
5. Let It Rest
Let the cooked turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.
6. Refrigerate Promptly
Refrigerate the cooked turkey and stuffing within 2 hours after cooking. Place leftovers in shallow containers and use within 3 to 4 days. Reheat leftovers to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
Set the oven temperature no lower than 325°F and be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. Check the internal temperature at the center of the stuffing and meaty portion of the breast, thigh, and wing joint using a food thermometer. Cooking times will vary. The food thermometer must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat.
For more information on safe internal temperatures, visit FoodSafety.gov.