On a recent and glorious fall day, we took the kids biking up in Shelby Forest. Near the trail’s end, we happened upon a trove of smooth brown nuts scattered beneath a small tree. The kids gathered up dozens, pretending they were lost in the wilds and the nuts were saving them from starvation. They looked like the chestnuts I’d gotten from the Botanic Garden and incorporated into last year’s stuffing, but just a bit different. So I did some research when we got home. Good thing I did. They were buckeyes, unrelated to the edible chestnut, and utterly toxic.
I’m not here to scare anyone, but this little story points out only the least likely way you can make your kids, guests, and self sick at the holidays. The good news? As the buckeye incident illustrates, avoiding food poisoning can be done with awareness and caution.
September’s outbreak of listeria, caused by contaminated canteloupe, was a reminder that food safety isn’t just a question of keeping food cool during summer’s heat (though that is important). Nonetheless, the holidays require special vigilance. In the hustle of preparing a big turkey dinner and the torpor that follows, it’s easy to forget our food safety basics. It’s hard to give thanks for a trip to the emergency room. Attention to food safety is especially crucial when you’re feeding small children, pregnant women, or seniors. The youngest and the oldest guests (and anyone with a compromised immune system) at your family gathering face the greatest threats from toxins and pathogens associated with incorrectly prepared and stored food.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s “Just for Kids” page at cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention.html#justforkids (one clearly devised by someone who’s neither met nor been a child), food safety can be boiled down to five elements: clean, separate, cook, chill, and report. Here’s what that means for you as you prepare that big bird.Clean: This ranges from rigorous hand-washing to safe thawing. The USDA offers guidelines for thawing times for a range of turkey sizes, but a 12 to 16 lb. turkey will need 3 to 4 days in the fridge to reach a safely cookable state. (If it’s still frozen inside, you’ll have to overcook the exterior to reach a safe internal temperature.)Separate: Let’s keep it simple. If it, your hand, knife, cutting board, or platter, touches uncooked poultry, wash it thoroughly in hot, soapy water before it touches anything else.Cook: Poultry must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165° in order to kill all pathogens. According to “Let’s Talk Turkey,” a USDA fact sheet, turkeys with pop-up thermometers still need to be checked with a food thermometer “in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.”
Is it possible to cook the turkey to a safe temperature and still enjoy eating it? Sure! To avoid drying the turkey’s breast, I recommend two interventions. First, brine your turkey. I’ve been brining for 10 years after reading about the technique in Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and it’s never failed to keep my turkey moist. Second, start it breast-down and turn it after an hour or so. It’s a nuisance, but it beats the Cook’s recommended method of turning the bird four times (this ridiculous routine had me flipping the bird at Cook’s). At a temperature of 325 degrees, your turkey will cook gently but thoroughly.
Finally, alas, don’t stuff your turkey. You can enjoy delicious dressing, but if you want your meat moist and safe, you’ll have to warm the stuffing in its own pan. After you take the turkey out to let it rest before serving, drizzle drippings from the turkey pan onto the stuffing and pop it into the oven. Chill: Once you’ve chowed down, it’s time to deal with what you didn’t eat. I know people who see the entire Thanksgiving ritual as nothing more than a lead-up to leftovers. Kids who can’t sit still at the Thanksgiving table will go nuts for a turkey wing and a slice of pie the day after. So ensure the safety of the remains by refrigerating anything that won’t be eaten within a couple of hours. Several smaller, shallow containers will cool more efficiently than large, deep ones. If anyone does get sick (perish the thought), report the illness to the local health department. Remember this old chestnut: Better safe than sorry.