Roughly half of all meat in the U.S. is contaminated with some sort of bacteria. Follow these rules to control it this Thanksgiving and eliminate the sickness it can cause:
1. DO. NOT. RINSE. Did you hear me? Don’t listen to your grandmother and her grandmother and all the grandmothers who tell you to rinse your poultry. DO NOT RINSE YOUR POULTRY. Science is on our side, Grandma! Rinsing your poultry – any bird, not just turkey – can actually cause bacteria to aerosolize and spread up to three feet around your kitchen. If you’re like most of us, that means it will land on cooking utensils, the coffee pot, the baby’s bottles sitting on a drying rack, and more. Rinsing poultry does nothing to get rid of most bacteria – the bacteria that it does eliminate are now splashing around your kitchen. What does eliminate bacteria? Proper cooking, according to the USDA.
2. Avoid cross contamination. When you handle a turkey, make sure nothing else is around. You don’t want raw turkey juices getting on anything that you can’t immediately clean. Use a separate cutting board and knife for preparing your Turkey for cooking than you plan to use for cutting your veggies. Cross contamination can happen to the best of us, but we should do everything we can to prevent it.
3. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. One more thing. Wash your hands. You cannot wash your hands too much while handling raw meat. Think about everything you touch while preparing food – utensils, towels, the countertop, your clothes, your body, even the soap dispenser. Washing your hands properly will help keep all that bacteria from making its way onto every item in your kitchen. And if it does get on another surface, wash it.
4. Don’t thaw your turkey on the counter. A raw turkey needs to be kept at 40 degrees. If you thaw it on the counter, the outside (the part that is defrosting the fastest) will likely get warmer than 40 degrees and therefore become more susceptible to bacteria. Thaw your turkey either in the fridge or in cold water. Yes, it takes a very long time to thaw a big bird that way so be prepared! Here is a handy chart with thawing times. Another good tip – put your turkey in a dish while it sits in the fridge. You would hate to find out about that tiny hole in the plastic while it is defrosting… a flood of raw turkey juices in your fridge is not so pretty and a real mess to clean up.
5. Cook your turkey to a safe temperature – which also means getting a good meat thermometer. All poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees. If you plan to cook your stuffing inside of your turkey, that means it also needs to be cooked to 165 degrees. And pay no attention to those popper things that come in the turkey. Check the temperature yourself.
6. Dressing (Stuffing if you’re not from the South). Most cooks in the South do not stuff a turkey with dressing. Dressing is cooked on the side. If you do stuffing instead, be cautious because stuffing can be unsafe because it is stuffing. Explanation: you fill the cavity of the bird with stuffing so that the delicious turkey juices add great flavor to your stuffing. As we discussed above the turkey and its juices are loaded with bacteria. Those bacteria are now in your stuffing in the center of the turkey, the part that is farthest from the heat source and therefore takes the longest to reach a safe temperature (165 degrees). So you have two choices. You could: 1) Cook the turkey to its perfect temperature while it is still perfectly moist, serving it with the stuffing that is not cooked to the perfect temperature and therefore at risk of carrying bacteria that is going to send your guests to either an urgent care center like AFC/Doctors Express or if it is a bad case of food poisoning, to the ER, or 2) Cook the bird and the stuffing until the stuffing in the center is cooked to a safe temperature thus overcooking and drying out your turkey. There is an option where everybody wins: Cook your stuffing separately. Use a delicious, rich stock (chicken, turkey, or vegetable) to add the flavor you’re looking for.
7. Avoid BPAs. Most people know that canned goods have a liner that often contains Bisphenol A or BPA. Buy fresh or frozen veggies and for the cranberry sauce, make it yourself from fresh or frozen cranberries. It is easy and delicious… and much safer.