Lean Protein Spotlight: Turkey

The other day, I roasted a 15-pound turkey, but I was only serving two people. What was I thinking?

Actually it’s a simple answer.

Before Thanksgiving last year, our grocery store offered whole turkeys at $0.37 per pound if you bought $35 worth of groceries. I had to take them up on that deal, which meant that I had two turkeys in the freezer. Recently, I decided to cook one of them for guests, but they cancelled. Since I already had the turkey thawing in the fridge, I cooked it anyway. That’s the easy part: no dressing, no basting, cook until the thickest parts reach 165 degrees F. Results: a lot of food for two people.

Frozen turkeys will keep for a long time if held below zero degrees. They’re usually packed in air- and water-resistant plastic wraps that help prevent loss of quality during freezer storage. The general recommendation for freezer storage is one year, if the food has been frozen that whole time. This is a quality recommendation and not a food safety deadline.

According to the National Turkey Federation, removed bones typically reduce the weight of the turkey by 25% and my turkey was fairly true to that estimate. I weighed the bones after I cooked them down for soup and picked the meat off, and I had 3.3 pounds of “waste” (there was additional fat and moisture I couldn’t weigh) from my 15-pound turkey. We ended up with about 10 pounds of meat at around $0.50 a pound. What a deal!

The usual recommendation is to purchase one pound of turkey (on the bone) for each person served. This is geared for holiday meals with all the trimmings and to save leftovers too. With my February turkey, we had a few meals of roast turkey and then two big pots of soup. We also had lots of leftovers for sandwiches at a much better price, taste, and quality than that expensive processed turkey meat in the deli. Plus, I froze a few packages of cooked turkey for quick meals later. The recommendation for frozen cooked turkey is to eat it within three months.

The US Dietary Guidelines suggest choosing lean or low-fat meat and poultry as your protein source. Turkey is lower in fat and calories than many other foods in the protein group and can be a good choice. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, 3 ounces of whole turkey (meat only) contains 135 calories, 24 grams of protein, and only 3.26 grams of fat.

Even if you can’t get as good a price as I did, roasting your own turkey or turkey parts any time of the year can be an easy job with lots of nutritional benefits.  Why wait until Thanksgiving?

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

Three Turkey Tips

turkey

DON’T WASH IT!  If you’re thinking that rinsing or washing the turkey will remove any potential bacteria —don’t bother — it won’t work. According to the folks at the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline, the process of washing or rinsing a turkey will not remove any bacteria that may be on it and it won’t make it safer. It’s virtually impossible to wash bacteria off the bird.

The concern with washing poultry (not just a big turkey, but all poultry) is splashing bacteria and cross contamination.

The water used to rinse the turkey adds to the amount of liquid that could be contaminated with bacteria. It can splash around the sink, countertop, onto other dishes, faucets or you, the cook. The chances are high that some of the foods in the “splash zone” won’t be cooked. This could make you or your holiday guests very sick and all of this arises from doing something that you thought was a good thing.

What you really need to do is wash your hands before and after handling your turkey and its packaging. This can go a long way towards avoiding spreading harmful bacteria. If your raw turkey or its juices come in contact with kitchen surfaces, wash the countertops and sinks with hot, soapy water. If you want to make sure everything is bacteria free, you can sanitize the area by using a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Be sure to let those areas dry thoroughly.

WHAT ABOUT PINK TURKEY MEAT?  You can’t use color as a guide to determine whether your turkey is cooked or not.

Turkey meat can remain pink even when it is at the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Note that smoked turkey meat is always pink. The difference in colors between the “white meat,” “dark meat,” and even “pink meat” is due to the amount of oxygen-storing myoglobin in the meat muscle. Muscles that are used more — like the leg muscles — need more oxygen and can store more, so they have more myoglobin and thus darker meat.

DON’T GUESS. CHECK THE TEMP! The only way that you can be absolutely sure the turkey is completely cooked is to use a thermometer. The minimum temperature a turkey should be cooked is 165 degrees F. Check the internal temperature at several locations, including the thigh and the thickest part of the breast.

Pop-up timers may pop too early because of fat pooling at the tip; always use another thermometer to double check.

While 165 degrees F is the minimum safe temperature for destroying bacteria, the National Turkey Federation recommends cooking turkey to a higher temperature. They say that people will like the quality more and the turkey itself will be easier to carve and slice if it’s cooked to a higher temperature. They frequently suggest 180 degrees.

Anyway, I hope these tips help make your Thanksgiving celebration even greater!

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

Here’s a handout with these tips! It’s perfect for a display, presentation, or email blast!

3turkeytips

And here are some other great holiday resources…

All Over But The Leftovers

Thanksgiving TurkeysThanksgiving is tomorrow! Are you ready for it? Here’s a fun post from Cheryle Jones Syracuse that will remind your clients about food safety for leftovers, helping them keep their holiday celebrations safe and festive. Don’t miss the free quiz handout!

It takes hours — days if you count the shopping, planning, and chopping — to cook a Thanksgiving dinner. Then it usually takes less than one hour for the bountiful holiday meal to be eaten.

So, what’s left to do? The guests are watching football and it’s time to clean up (already?). This isn’t the time to forget about food safety. While overindulging can cause an upset stomach, so can eating food that was improperly handled or stored. Don’t get careless with those leftovers!

Here’s a quick quiz to use with your students or clients that can help reinforce some basic Thanksgiving (and year round) leftover practices.

Answer TRUE or FALSE to the following questions…

  1. TRUE or FALSE. Since it cooked for a long time, and you checked the temperature when it was done, and the refrigerator is so full, it’s okay to leave the turkey (and all the other goodies) to sit out for hours after the meal so that people can pick at it and make sandwiches.
  2. TRUE or FALSE. Food should be allowed to cool before you put it in the refrigerator.
  3. TRUE or FALSE. Leftover packs for guests should be refrigerated as soon as possible.
  4. TRUE or FALSE. Leftovers will keep for a week after Thanksgiving.
  5. TRUE or FALSE. A quick “zap” in the microwave is good enough to warm up your leftovers.

Answers:

  1. FALSE. Just because it’s a holiday and your refrigerator is full does not mean that the “two-hour rule” isn’t in effect. Food should not be allowed to sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Two hours is enough time for bacteria to multiply to the quantity that could cause foodborne illnesses. This is cumulative too. If you leave the leftovers on the dining room table for one hour, then later leave them out on the counter for 30 minutes to make sandwiches, you will only have a half-hour window left.
  2. FALSE. See above for the “two hour rule.” If you have a large amount of hot food, then it’s best to divide it into smaller portions and put them in the refrigerator as soon as possible. Or, better yet, cool the food by putting it in an ice bath or cold water bath before putting it into the refrigerator. On the same note, don’t store the stuffing inside the turkey.
  3. TRUE. It’s wonderful that you’re sharing the leftovers with your guests, but make sure that this food is safe too. Think about the two-hour rule. If they won’t be leaving for several hours, make sure this food is refrigerated. If they’re traveling for more than two hours, make sure that they have a cooler or way to keep the food cold for the trip.
  4. FALSE Leftovers should be eaten within 3 to 4 days. Keep them in the coldest part of your refrigerator (not the garage or the back porch). If you have more leftovers than can be eaten within the recommended leftover time (Monday), then you can freeze them. Frozen turkey, plain, will keep for 4 months at 0 degrees F or below. Turkey covered with broth or gravy will keep for 6 months at the same temperature. Stuffing and gravy will only be good for about a month. These foods will be safe for a longer time, but may become dry, lose flavor, or drop in quality. This goes for that turkey carcass too! If you don’t have time to make soup out of it right away, wrap it carefully and freeze it. Then it will be there to make soup when you have more time.
  5. FALSE Reheat leftovers thoroughly. Merely warming leftover gravy, sauces, and soups will not get them hot enough to kill bacteria. These foods should be simmered or boiled until they’re steamy hot throughout. If you’re using a microwave, cover your food while cooking and then allow standing time for a few minutes so that the temperatures inside can even out. Leftovers should reach at least 165 degrees F.

And there you have it! A quick quiz to help your clients celebrate Thanksgiving safely and happily, leftovers and all.

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

Here’s an easy-to-print PDF copy of the quiz! Enjoy!

Leftovers Quiz

There are tons of holiday resources in the Nutrition Education Store — which will you try first?

Holiday Secrets Cookbook

Holiday Survival: Keep Off the Pounds PowerPoint and Handout Set

Holiday Poster Set

You Want to do What with that Turkey?

Happy Thanksgiving!Nutrition, food safety, and cooking educators are always singing the same song before Thanksgiving. We talk about how to keep that large bird safe, standing on our soap boxes with research-based information about how people can get a foodborne illness from some common practices. But does anyone listen?

Common responses include “this is how I’ve always done it” and “no one’s died, yet.” Facing that kind of attitude, it’s hard to encourage change.

So, I’ve decided to turn the tables. Here’s a fun quiz that addresses some of the common mistakes people make when cooking a large meal at home. Perhaps if you make people laugh at their mistakes, then give them some practical answers about why they should respect food safety rules, they might change their attitude and practices.

Believe it or not, these are questions and responses from real people that I’ve heard over the many years I’ve been teaching food safety. I couldn’t make this stuff up!

Pick the best answer to each question.

1. The turkey in your freezer has been there since last Thanksgiving. What should you do with it?

a. Throw it out!
b. Feed it to your in-laws.
c. Go ahead and use it on Thanksgiving.
d. Leave it in there and buy another one for Thanksgiving.

2. Your turkey is frozen solid. How do you thaw it?

a. Put it in the dryer with lots of towels.
b. Run it through a cycle in the dishwasher.
c. Put in a cooler in the garage.
d. Find a spot in the refrigerator.

3. It’s the day before Thanksgiving and your turkey is still frozen. What can you do?

a. Cancel the holiday dinner.
b. Let the turkey sit in the laundry tub overnight.
c. Cook the frozen turkey.
d. Put the turkey under running water for 10 hours.

4. Your family loves stuffing/dressing that’s baked inside the turkey. You know that isn’t recommended, but you’re going to do it anyway. What’s the best way to proceed?

a. Mix and prepare the stuffing just before you put into the turkey. Stuff it lightly just before it goes into the oven and use a thermometer to make sure it reaches 165 degrees before serving.
b. Since they like it so much, put as much stuffing into the turkey as you can fit, just before you put it in the oven. You might need to lace it closed with twine to hold all that stuffing inside.
c. Stuff the turkey the night before and have it ready to go into the oven in the morning.
d. Get the stuffing ready to go the day before and stuff the turkey in the morning, this will help you get it in the oven quickly.

5. The turkey’s been in the oven for several hours. How do you know if it’s done?

a. The pop-up thermometer has popped. It’s done.
b. A thermometer reads at least 165 degrees F in several spots on the bird.
c. You calculated the time vs. pounds on the instructions, that time has come and gone and it’s brown all over. It’s done.
d. The juices are running clear and the drumstick wiggles.

ANSWERS:

  1. C. A turkey that has been kept solidly frozen for an entire year will be safe to eat. The quality may be lower than a turkey kept in the freezer for a shorter time. One suggestion is to prepare it for a family meal before Thanksgiving. This will give you a recent turkey-cooking experience, so cooking on the big day won’t be so intimidating. Actually, answers B and D could also be correct, since there would be no reason not to invite your in-laws to your practice dinner or the holiday. You really could save the older turkey for after the holiday, but the longer it sits in the freezer, the lower the quality will be.
  2. D. Thawing the turkey in the refrigerator is the safest method. It takes one day for each four to five pounds of turkey to thaw. The other answers don’t keep the outside of the bird cold enough while the inside is still frozen. Also, it’s really best to use home appliances for their originally-designated purposes. Some of those ideas are just yucky!
  3. C. Turkeys can be cooked directly from the freezer; the cooking time may be as much as 50% more than a thawed turkey. There also won’t be an opportunity to stuff it. Instead, you could bake your stuffing in a casserole dish. Now what about those giblets in the bag? Check the turkey throughout the cooking process, and when it has defrosted enough, you can carefully remove the giblet bags with tongs. You could also thaw a turkey by submerging it in cold tap water. The water should be changed every 30 minutes, and this method will take 10-12 hours for a 20-pound turkey. It also requites lots of water. The turkey should be cooked immediately after thawing. Oh, and if you purchased a pre-stuffed turkey, then it should always be cooked directly from its frozen state.
  4. A. The ingredients can be prepared the day before, but keep the wet and dry ingredients separate. Make sure that the wet ingredients (chopped vegetables, broth, and cooked meats) are safely stored in the refrigerator. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together just before filling the turkey cavity, and even then, only fill it loosely. Cook the turkey immediately after stuffing it. Use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
  5. B. The only way that you can be absolutely sure that the turkey is done is to use a thermometer. The minimum temperature to which a turkey should be cooked is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the internal temperature at several locations, including the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. Pop-up timers may pop too early because of fat pooling at the tip, so always use another thermometer to double check. The National Turkey Federation recommends cooking turkey to a higher temperature than the minimum. While 165 degrees F is the minimum safe temperature, they say that people like the quality more (and it will be easier to carve and slice) if it’s cooked to a higher temperature. They frequently suggest 180 degrees F instead.

I hope you and your clients have as much fun with this quiz as I had writing it. Have a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving!

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

Here’s a free PDF handout of the quiz, just for you!

Thanksgiving Quiz

There are lots of other holiday resources in the Nutrition Education Store! Which ones will make your life easier?

Holiday Health Challenge Toolkit

Holiday MyPlate Poster

Holiday Train Game

Temp That Burger!

Thermometer and BurgerMy brother-in-law always teases me about “temping” food. I’ve never heard it called that, but what he loves to joke about is my use of a thermometer when I’m cooking.

It’s true — I can’t resist “temping.” I even use my thermometer when I’m cooking on the grill.

Yes, there are lots of ways to judge doneness, but they’re not equally effective. I know that many people use the meat’s color as their guide, but you can’t really rely on meat’s appearance to tell whether it’s done. The color of cooked ground beef can be quite variable. At 160 degree Fahrenheit (F), a safely-cooked patty may look brown, pink, or somewhere in-between. When a patty is cooked to 160 degrees F throughout, it can be safe and juicy, regardless of color.

How do I know this?

Well, recently I was cooking burgers on the grill and using their appearance as my guide to “doneness.” Honestly, I thought they needed more time. I pulled out my thermometer to check, and I found that the burgers had already surpassed the recommended 160 degrees F. I could have easily overcooked those burgers!

Anyway, the moral of the story is that, when it comes to cooking meat, you can’t always tell doneness by the color.

The only way to be sure a ground beef patty is cooked to a high enough temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria that may cause a foodborne illness is to use an accurate instant-read thermometer.

Thermometers and a BurgerHere’s exactly how to do it…

  • For ground meat patties, insert the thermometer at least ½ inch into the thickest part of the patty near the end of the cooking time.
  • If the burger is not thick enough to check from the top, the thermometer should be inserted sideways.
  • If you’re not sure if you got into the center, you can take a second reading in a different part of the burger.

All ground beef, veal, lamb or pork patties should be cooked to 160 degrees F. If you’re making a ground turkey or chicken burger, ensure that the patty reaches 165 degrees F.

I know lots of people will disagree with this. How many times have I heard people insist that they like their beef burgers rare or cooked below 160 degrees F? This is a personal choice that you can make, but know that you are putting your own health at risk when you eat those burgers. You’re also endangering anyone else who might eat one of your undercooked creations. I especially don’t consider this an acceptable option for poultry burgers.

Here’s why.

Rare hamburgers are far riskier to your health than a rare steak. If any pathogens are present on the outside of a whole piece of meat — like a steak — the high heat that sears and cooks the outside will destroy the dangerous bacteria. But when meat is ground up, any bacteria on the surface are mixed throughout the meat. Therefore, heat needs to get all the way into the middle of the burger to destroy these harmful bacteria.

The real concern here is a foodborne bacteria commonly known as E. coli. This bacteria and the illness it causes have been linked to the consumption of undercooked ground beef. Don’t let E. coli stay in your food — cook it out!

Oh, and here’s a special word of caution: while a healthy adult may not feel the effects of an undercooked burger, guests or other family members may be more at risk. The very young, the very old, and those with immune systems that have been weakened by cancer, kidney disease, and other illnesses are the most vulnerable to sicknesses associated with contaminated food. This is especially true with E. coli. These bacteria have been known to cause long-term illnesses including potentially fatal kidney failure.

Why take the risk?

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

Here is a free step-by-step food safety handout for grilling ground beef.

Grill Ground Beef

There are lots of food safety resources in the Nutrition Education Store!

Food Safety Poster: Safe Cooking Temperatures

Food Safety Handout and PowerPoint Set

Food Safety Poster

Internal Cooking Temperatures: Simply Confusing

It seems so simple.

Food TemperatureThere are four basic steps to food safety: wash, separate, cook, and refrigerate. Today I’m focusing on cook.

This recommendation seems simple to me: “cook food to a proper internal temperature and use a food thermometer.” So, why is it so hard?

Let’s take a minute to explore what preparing food safely actually entails. A couple of months ago, Judy Doherty, founder of Food and Health Communications, asked me to help her develop a food safety temperature poster.  She was looking to do something specifically about food temperatures. We started at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (freezer temperature) and went all the way up to 240 degrees (pressure canning). Although it may seem predictable, filling the space in between wasn’t so easy.

I teach a lot of restaurant food safety, so the first reference I want to was the Food and Drug Association’s (FDA) Food Code. In it, they list the recommended minimum internal cooking temperatures for food service. So far so good. But then I looked at the United States Department of Agriculture and found a different chart for minimum internal temperatures. This one was designed for consumers. All the recommended temperatures were the same or higher than the food code temperatures. That’s a little confusing. If there really is one “proper internal temperature,” then how can these differ?

I talked with a consumer adviser from the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline and asked about this difference. The response was that their information was designed for consumers who cook at home. This makes the authors of the chart more conservative than they are with food code guidelines. I can understand this, since restaurant and food service folks have standard operating procedures for food safety that are not found in most homes.

After my call, I went to the National Turkey Federation to confirm the recommended internal temperatures for poultry. In checking several recipes, I found at least three different temperatures for roasted turkey. On their website, the National Turkey Federation does a nice job explaining the rationale for these differing temperatures, saying:

“The FDA recommendations are for safety-temperatures at a sufficient level to kill bacteria that may be present. Our own recommended temperatures are somewhat higher in many cases. We have chosen these temperatures because we believe they will enable you to achieve optimum quality. In addition, turkey will be easier to carve or slice when heated/cooked to these temperatures.”

OK. This makes sense. When in doubt, use the higher temperature. Here is the USDA information:

Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart

Safe steps in food handling, cooking, and storage are essential in preventing foodborne illness. You can’t see, smell, or taste harmful bacteria that may cause illness. In every step of food preparation, follow the four guidelines to keep food safe:

  • Clean—Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Separate—Separate raw meat from other foods.
  • Cook—Cook to the right temperature.
  • Chill—Refrigerate food promptly.

Cook all food to these minimum internal temperatures as measured with a food thermometer before removing food from the heat source. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook food to higher temperatures.

Product Minimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time
Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb
Steaks, chops, roasts
145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
Ground meats 160 °F (71.1 °C)
Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked) 145 °F (60 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
Fully Cooked Ham
(to reheat)
Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F (60 °C) and all others to 165 °F (73.9 °C).

 

Product Minimum Internal Temperature
All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, and wings, ground poultry, and stuffing) 165 °F (73.9 °C)
Eggs 160 °F (71.1 °C)
Fish & Shellfish 145 °F (62.8 °C)
Leftovers 165 °F (73.9 °C)
Casseroles 165 °F (73.9 °C)

My concern is not to haggle over a few degrees here or there. My goal as a teacher and writer is to encourage people to use that thermometer. USDA studies show that 65% of consumers use food thermometers on Thanksgiving, but only 3% use them when cooking everyday foods like burgers. Why skip the thermometer?

“Cook” is one of the key steps to food safety. Cooking food so that it reaches a safe internal temperature is crucial to keeping food safe. Using thermometer is the only way to tell for sure whether food has reached a high enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria.

The bottom line is simple: are your clients using a food thermometer? Do they know the temperature of the food they’re eating and serving?

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

Here is the new food safety temperature chart poster based on USDA temperature guides:

And one on food safety:

4 Steps of Food Safety Poster

4 Steps of Food Safety Poster

And more great resources!

Cooking Demo Package

Cooking Demo Display Kit

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

Want to spread the word about Thanksgiving food safety? Get your very own copy of this free handout today!

Thanksgiving Food Safety

The Nutrition Education Store is chock-full of holiday and food safety resources too. Here’s a quick preview of a few of our favorites…

Food Safety Temperature Guide Poster

Food Safety PowerPoint Show and Handout Set

Food Safety Bookmark Set

Food Safety Poster

Some Last-Minute Thanksgiving Food Safety Thoughts.

Thanksgiving food clipart

This time a year we are bombarded with tips cooking, recipes and even food safety information related to cooking that big holiday dinner.  That’s the purpose of this post, too.  I know for some of this may be repetition or that I’m “preaching to the choir”, but food safety is not something to mess with.  Also, a Thanksgiving dinner is a big undertaking.  Some of these foods you only cook once a year, so you may not be as experienced with that food. Maybe you’re using a  “older” recipe for a family favorite that contains ingredients are now considered potentially hazardous.  Or simply there is just more food and more people than usual in your house. All of these can lead to potential food safety problems. Here are some of my last minute thoughts on Thanksgiving food safety.

  • Get a head start on food safety. Wash the kitchen counter and sinks down with warm soapy water and a mild bleach solution before you get started.  Do it again after you get the turkey in the oven, this will assure that you haven’t splashed raw turkey drippings onto surfaces that may later touch an uncooked food such as salad or desserts.
  • Encourage all volunteer cooks and helpers to wash their hands before they start.
  • Even though the refrigerator is stuffed full, don’t be tempted to store food in unconventional places—like the garage or porch. It may seem cold out there, but temperature is the key—it needs to stay below 40 degrees F.   There is no guarantee that the temperature in your garage, porch or car trunk will stay cold enough to keep the food safe.  The garage may warm up due to the heat from the car or the sun may come in through the porch windows and heat the air or the food.  Not to mention critters and neighborhood pets that maybe attracted to your Thanksgiving meal.  You might try an ice chest, but it will take some effort and a thermometer to assure that the food is being kept below 40 degrees
  • Remember some of your guests may be more at risk than others.  Great Aunt Bertine is  in her nineties and the neighbor’s great grandchild is coming, too.  The elderly and young children, organ transplant recipients and those with chronic illnesses may be more at risk of getting food borne illnesses than others.  These folks are a good reason to take extra care—the last thing you’d want to do is to make one of them sick.
  • Don’t allow food to sit at room temperature.  I know it’s tempting to leave out for latecomers or a quick snack or sandwich later, but get those leftovers into the refrigerator as soon as possible. Even if the food is still a little warm, get it into the refrigerator to cool.  The rule-of-thumb is two hours a room temperature for food safety—that’s cumulative over several days—so the sooner you get it into the refrigerator the less risk you’ll have over the weekend.
  • If you still have large servings of food break them down into smaller containers to allow them to cool quickly. Cut the turkey off the bones and get the slices and pieces into the refrigerator quickly.  I wrap and throw the bones into the freezer right away—it gets it out of the way and one less thing to worry about—to make soup some other day.
  • All leftovers should be eaten or frozen by the end of the weekend.  When heating leftover stuffing or gravy it’s important that is heated to at least 165 degrees.

The buzz phrase for food safety has always been “when in doubt—throw it out”.

I’m sure you probably don’t need this reminder… we are blessed with some of the safest food in the world for which I am thankful. Let’s work to keep it that way.  Have a food safe day full of gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving.

Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS

Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University.

Let’s just cancel Thanksgiving

IMGP2157I’m giving my age away a little, but I remember an old Johnny Carson monologue (Hint for people under 40:  he’s the guy on the Tonight Show before Jay Leno).  It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and Johnny asked the audience if they had placed their frozen turkey in the refrigerated to thaw. He then concluded that if they hadn’t they might as well cancel Thanksgiving.

It really isn’t that drastic an issue; there are other options for thawing that bird.  It is amazing to me the problems people seem to have with a frozen turkey and the many creative ideas I’ve heard over the years for getting it thawed in time.

Let me set the record straight. It is not safe to thaw a turkey in the trunk of your car, in the garage, basement or clothes drier. Even though the turkey may stay frozen on the inside as it thaws the outside is exposed to the temperature danger zone and this might result in a food borne illness.

The very best way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. So, Johnny was right, if you don’t get it in the refrigerator soon enough it won’t completely thaw using this method.

You can also defrost in cold water, but this takes a lot of time, attention and water. This method can also be used to finish thawing the turkey that was only in the refrigerator for a day or so.  Place the turkey in a leak-proof bag in a clean sink and submerge in cold water.  This water needs to be changed every half hour.  The reason for this is the water needs to be kept under 70 degrees the whole time to keep the outside of the bird cold.  It takes about 30 minutes for each pound, so your 25 pound turkey would have you changing water for 12 ½ hours.

If you have a smaller turkey, it could be thawed in the microwave, but it needs to be cooked immediately after thawing.

You could cook the turkey directly from the freezer.  It will take about 50% more time.  So your 25 pound bird would take you about 7-7.5 hours to roast, and it won’t be stuffed.  If you do this method, you could carefully take the frozen pack of giblets out during the roasting when the bird becomes thawed enough. Then throw them away. You’ll need to use a thermometer to assure the turkey has reached at least 165 degrees before serving. Do not try to deep-fry a frozen turkey.

If you really are having trouble finding space to allow a frozen turkey to defrost in the refrigerator for several days, you may consider purchasing a fresh turkey and picking it up just before the holiday.  But you’re still going to need to find room for it in the refrigerator unless you start to roast as soon as you get it home from the store.

Johnny was right-on-the-money with many of his smart quips…but a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning is not a reason to cancel the whole dinner. It just might be a little late.

Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS

Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University

How old is that turkey?

IMGP2174Dig around in your freezer.  Is there a turkey in there? Perhaps you got it as a gift last Christmas or at a great price after Thanksgiving last year. You just didn’t get around to cooking it throughout the year.  So you wonder. Is it safe to use for Thanksgiving dinner this year.

In general the answer is YES.

There are a couple of caveats.  Was the bird solidly frozen the whole time?   The temperature in the freezer needs to have been constant during the year and the wrappings should be intact. Did you have any major power outages during this past year where the turkey could have thawed partially or completely?  Since it takes several days for a turkey to thaw this is probably unlikely, but the safety key is that the bird was kept below 40 degrees the whole time the power was off.

A turkey kept for a year in a freezer will be safe. But (always a disclaimer) it might have some quality loss. This could be a texture change or an off-flavor. You might not want to risk it on the big day. So, it might be a good idea to buy a new turkey for the holiday and use the stored bird for a family meal earlier in the month. 

Since obviously if there’s a year-old turkey in your freezer, you don’t cook a turkey very often, it’ll also be a good “run through” meal before the holiday.

Here are a couple of tips to get you started:

  • When buying a whole turkey allow for about 1 pound per person.  This will give you plenty of leftovers for sandwiches.
  • It takes a day for each five pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator.
  •  Don’t rely on the pop-up thermometer in the turkey.  If you don’t have one, treat yourself to an instant-read food thermometer.  If you have one, this might be a good time to calibrate it.  Put it in a glass of ice water and see if it is accurate.  No sense in using it if it’s wrong.
  • The lowest oven temperature you should use to cook a turkey is 325 degrees.  Lower that that will allow the turkey to stay in the temperature danger zone for a long period of time and may result in a food borne illness.
  • Consider not stuffing the bird. An unstuffed turkey will cook faster and maybe safer.  Think about it….where are you putting that stuffing?  Why do you think it is so moist? Cooking the stuffing in a separate dish also allows you to control the fat and calories that are absorbed into the stuffing.
  • If you decide to stuff, allow about ¾ cup stuffing for each pound of turkey. Stuff the bird just before putting it in the oven.  Stuffing it the day before is just asking for food safety problems.
  • Allow at least 20 minutes a pound for roasting and then some resting time before serving.
  • Check the temperature of the turkey in several spots. You’ll hear lots of temperatures being suggested in recipes and by television chefs.  Some people like the texture of turkey when it is cooked to a higher temperature and that’s OK, but for food safety make sure it is at least 165 degrees. If you do stuff the turkey, make sure the stuffing (deep down inside the cavity) is also 165 degrees, too.

Getting that frozen turkey out of the freezer will free up some space for leftovers or perhaps another turkey that you’ll get on sale this year. Perhaps this year you’ll get around to cooking turkey more often. It’s not that hard.  I, personally, think that the turkey is the easiest part of the Thanksgiving dinner.

Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS

Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University