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Safety first: With people staying home for Thanksgiving, it’s time to talk turkey and other precautions

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 25, 2020

This is a year for many firsts, and add to the list a high number of inaugural encounters with cooking a turkey along with other holiday staples.

You know – those traditional dishes enjoyed over at the house of family or friends, and perhaps you bring the rolls. Except this year. Many Americans will stay home because of pandemic concerns.

U.S. Department of Agriculture specialists expect a higher volume of questions this holiday season on its “Meat and Poultry Hotline” to coach through rookie mistakes and help prevent foodborne illness.

“This year especially over the holidays, I feel like a lot of people are going to be making these types of meals for the first time, when they’re used to going to their families’ houses, because there may not be as many big gatherings,” said Meredith Carothers, a USDA food safety expert.

In considering COVID-19 precautions this year, Carothers suggests to follow coronavirus health guidelines such as frequent hand-washing, but also to know that the food itself isn’t a concern.

“There is not evidence that supports COVID will be transmitted through food or food packaging,” she said.

“When it comes to food preparation in the pandemic, we’re really just recommending to follow the four steps that will help eliminate most of the risk of foodborne illness, as well as help lessen the risk of other germs and illnesses.

“That involves hand-washing, keeping your raw products separate from ready-to-eat products, cooking with a food thermometer for making sure food reaches a safe internal temperature and also making sure things get refrigerated in a safe amount of time.”

Other federal guidance for the holidays can be found on the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among considerations, families can have one person serve a holiday meal on plates to avoid use of common serving utensils touched by everyone at a table.

About turkey

It’s usually the large bird’s prep and proper cooking that bring in the most calls, Carothers said. She sees questions like how to defrost and ways to ensure a proper internal temperature.

“We do hear a lot from people who are cooking for the first time,” Carothers said. “When you are cooking something like a turkey, it’s large, it has giblets in it, and it’s just foreign to some people.”

There are common mistakes to avoid, Carothers said. That includes lack of attention to remnants of raw meat juices splashed onto surfaces while handling a turkey and other cuts of meat.

The USDA doesn’t recommend rinsing off raw turkey because it can spread bacteria through water splatters and remnants in the sink. If areas aren’t cleaned afterward with soap and then sanitizer, the bacteria might spread to other foods being washed and prepped.

But a turkey is typically large, so Carothers said she knows people often use a sink to contain and prep a turkey before putting it in the oven. If so, once the turkey is out of the way, take care of affected surfaces with a two-step process.

Carothers suggests to use a rag or paper towel to wipe surfaces with soapy water, and then use either a commercial or self-made sanitizer. A basic sanitizing mixture is 1 tablespoon liquid chlorine bleach per one gallon of water, she said.

Common questions

How do I defrost a turkey? Waiting until the last several hours before a holiday meal is a common rookie mistake for defrosting, Carothers said.

“If the turkey is frozen solid, it’s definitely going to take a good amount of time. What we say is that defrosting in the refrigerator is absolutely the safest way.

“It does take about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey as a general estimate. If you have a 20-pound turkey, you want to estimate at least four days. I personally recommend to throw in an extra day because a lot of people keep their refrigerators pretty cold.”

“If you are in a bind, we do also recommend the cold water method – that involves the turkey submerged in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes, ensuring that it stays at a safe temperature.”

Mistakes include leaving out a turkey to thaw on the counter, outside on a porch or in a garage. Those environments don’t guarantee a safe or consistent temperature because perishable food needs to stay less than 40 degrees to avoid the risk of foodborne illnesses.

If food remains at above 40 degrees for more than two hours, foodborne-causing bacteria naturally present on food can multiply to dangerous levels and “potentially create heat-resistant toxins,” she said, that wouldn’t be killed by cooking. If those are present when you eat, that can make you sick.

Another mistake is putting a partially frozen turkey in a deep fryer. “It is a personal safety concern if it’s frozen – the ice crystals will react with the oil and create steam, and it can potentially cause it to boil over and explode hot oil everywhere.”

However, in a regular oven, a partially frozen turkey can be cooked safely. It will just take longer, she said.

Stuffing inside or outside? She said it’s generally safer to cook stuffing in a separate container, but there are safe ways to cook with stuffing inside the bird.

Put the stuffing in the bird right before it goes into the oven. Toward the end of the cooking time, use of a food thermometer at different parts of the turkey, including the cavity if there’s stuffing, to check the recommended 165 degrees for cooked temperature.

Carothers said she also advises to check three other places – the breast’s thickest part, innermost part of the wing and innermost part of the thigh.

Can I microwave a turkey? Yes, if there’s room for air flow around it, Carothers said. Most microwaves can take up to a 12-pound turkey.

Other food safe tips include refrigerating leftovers as soon as possible – within less than two hours of a holiday meal. Leftovers in the fridge should last about four days, and then consider freezing the rest.

Carothers said that for herself and many others, this year will be a time for downsizing holiday recipes because of smaller, household-only gatherings. “You are still maintaining traditions, but also not wasting food.”

It means cutting recipes in half, not going without. “I love stuffing, so we definitely will have stuffing, and we make this pineapple bread pudding that is a sweet and savory bread dish, so we’re doing that.

“I also love green bean casserole.”

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