Thanksgiving is around the corner and if you are planning to be in the kitchen cooking up a feast for friends or family, you need to start thinking about safe cooking, including thawing the turkey, proper temperatures and handling leftovers. If you do not keep food safety in mind, your feast could become tainted with bacteria like salmonella, listeria, E. coli and Clostridium perfringens that could make you, your guests and your family sick.
Sacramento County Environmental Management Department (EMD) food safety specialists and Sacramento County Public Health say improper preparation of meals and handling of leftovers can make you sick. The departments would like to remind everyone to always handle raw turkey carefully, do not cross-contaminate surfaces and other foods, and cook thoroughly.
"To prevent foodborne illness, it’s important that raw meats, poultry and vegetables are handled properly when preparing and cooking meals, and that leftovers are stored correctly,” said Rolando Villareal, EMD Environmental Health Division Chief. “And don’t forget to wash your hands frequently and to thoroughly clean surfaces and utensils that have come into contact with raw meats, especially poultry.”
To keep yourself and your loved ones safe when preparing a turkey, be aware of five important safety issues: thawing, preparing, stuffing, cooking to the proper temperature and handling of leftovers.
Thawing your turkey in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to your microwave's owner's manual. Coldwater and microwave thawing can also be used if your bird did not entirely defrost in the refrigerator.
As you prepare the turkey, bacteria present on raw poultry can contaminate your hands, utensils and work surfaces, which then can be transferred. After working with raw poultry, always wash utensils and work surfaces, as well as your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before touching other foods. It is not recommended to wash your turkey as the bacteria can spread up to three feet away.
For optimal safety and consistent 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.
Before cooking, always thaw turkeys completely in the refrigerator. Set the oven temperature to a minimum of 325°F. Place the turkey, breast-side up, on a wire rack in a shallow roasting pan. Check the internal temperature using a food thermometer; the center of the stuffing and meaty portion of the breast, thigh and wing joint must reach 165°F at a minimum. Cooking times will vary. Let the turkey stand for 20 minutes. Remove all the stuffing from the cavity and carve the meat.
Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Clostridium perfringens are bacteria that grow in cooked foods left at room temperature. It is the second-most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. Clostridium perfringens outbreaks occur most often in November and December and are often linked to foods commonly served during the holidays, like turkey and roast beef. The major symptoms are vomiting and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours of eating.
Refrigerate leftovers at 40°F or colder as soon as possible and within two hours of preparation to prevent food poisoning and be sure to reheat all your leftovers to a minimum of 165°F.
Leftover Storage Timeframes
- Refrigerator (41°F or below)
- Cooked turkey …… 3 to 4 days
- Cooked dishes and gravy …… 3 to 4 days
- Freezer (0 °F or below)
- Turkey, plain; slices or pieces …… 4 months
- Turkey covered with broth or gravy …… 6 months
- Cooked poultry dishes, stuffing, and gravy …… 4-6 months