Stuffing or Dressing? And What About Food Safety?

What does your family call it? Dressing or stuffing?

No matter what you call it, people are passionate about it at Thanksgiving. Stuffing can be very personal, and everyone seems to have a favorite way to make it. The options are many. Chestnuts or oysters? Cornbread or white bread? Giblets or not? Sausage with sage or chorizo?

I’m not going to debate the ingredients. Those are personal decisions and family traditions. Instead, I want to talk food safety.

Stuffing? Or Dressing?

Most food safety folks agree that, for optimal safety and uniform doneness, stuffing should not be cooked inside the bird. The primary reason for this recommendation is that the stuffing is a great place for bacteria to grow. Think about it. Stuffing is wet and warm, and it goes into the deepest part of the turkey, the spot that will take the longest to heat.

Sometimes the turkey meat is cooked before the stuffing reaches the recommended minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. When this happens, there are two options:

  1. Keep cooking the bird and get overcooked meat (this is the recommended alternative).
  2. Eat underdone stuffing (which could be risky).

If you’re cooking stuffing inside the bird, make sure that that stuffing comes to a safe temperature. I’m sorry for the indelicacy, but think about what was in the bird’s cavity before you put the stuffing there.

Holiday Plate

Now if you MUST put the stuffing in the bird, there are a few tips that you can try in order to get the stuffing fully cooked while keeping the meat moist and juicy.

  • If you’re using ingredients like oysters, giblets, or sausage in your stuffing, be sure to cook them completely before mixing them with the bread and vegetables. They can still be hot when added to the stuffing and placed inside the turkey, which will help speed the heating time of the stuffing itself.
  • Stuff the turkey loosely. This tasty goodness needs room to expand. If you have extra stuffing that won’t fit in the bird, cook it in a separate casserole dish or freeze it immediately. Don’t keep raw stuffing in the refrigerator.
  • If you purchased a frozen, pre-stuffed turkey, be sure to follow the instructions on the package.
  • Don’t stuff a turkey that you’re going to cook in a fryer. The oil needs to be able to flow inside the bird to allow for quick and even cooking.
  • When testing for doneness, put a thermometer into the deepest part of the stuffing. Yes, this goes for stuffing in a casserole dish too. Make sure that the stuffing reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit before you take it out of the oven.
  • After dinner, get all of the stuffing out of the turkey and served as soon as possible. If there are leftovers, refrigerate them within 2 hours of their coming out of the oven.
  • When reheating leftover stuffing (is there really ever any leftover stuffing?), use your thermometer again and make sure that the reheated stuffing reaches 165 degrees F. Don’t guess or simply eyeball it. Stuffing is a great place for food-borne illness causing bacteria to multiply and the risk is not worth it.
  • Use leftover stuffing within 2 days.

Cooking the Stuffing

Oh and one more stuffing tip. To save time on Thanksgiving morning, you can gather the stuffing’s wet and dry ingredients the day before you need to cook. Chop the vegetables and combine all the wet ingredients in one bowl. Combine all the dry ingredients in another, then store the bowls safely and mix their contents together just before you stuff the bird. Be sure to keep all the perishable items in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use them. This includes the chopped vegetables.

Whether you call it dressing or stuffing, it’s how you take care of it that’s important. Have a food safe holiday!

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

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updated on 09-21-2019