A Few Basic Rules for a Happy Thanksgiving
Nov. 24, 1999 (Atlanta) -- It's time to talk turkey. There are myriad recipes out there on how to prepare the Thanksgiving staple, but few of them mention a key ingredient: safety. But unless some simple precautions are followed, turkey -- and many other items on the menu -- can knock the stuffing out of you.
The problem is bacteria. The have such operatic-sounding names, like Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella enterica. But the sounds they'll have coming out of you won't be heard in any concert hall, and even Wagner couldn't dream them up.
Not to put a damper on the holidays, but food safety is a concern for many officials, especially during the holidays. Bessie Berry, the manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) meat and poultry hotline, tells WebMD, "The reason that we're very concerned around the holidays is because of the enormity of the meal itself. Traditions, and the expectations that are there, are not there throughout the year. People are preparing birds for the first time because it's their time to cook, and that sort of thing, and they aren't aware of some of the pitfalls in handling and preparing large meals like this, and particularly a large turkey."
According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommendations, a cautious cook should follow four guidelines: clean, separate, cook, and chill. "All of the surfaces should be kept as clean as possible throughout the process," Berry says.
Separate means don't cross-contaminate. "The real problem with the side dishes, especially when you're preparing something as large as this [Thanksgiving meal], is the cross-contamination from the juices of the birds into those other foods that may or may not have been already cooked," Berry tells WebMD.
Berry also says, "Temperature controls are paramount." Everything must be cooked to the proper temperature. The turkey must reach at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the question, to stuff or not to stuff, comes into the mix. "The safest way to [cook stuffing] is outside the bird. But tradition is hard to beat. So, if people choose to do that, they should mix the stuffing ingredients just prior to stuffing the cavity, then stuff the cavity loosely. Then use a thermometer. For the bird, 185 degrees [should be reached], and the oven should be no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and the stuffing must reach at least 165 degrees after the bird has reached 185," Berry says.
To register properly, the thermometer should be inserted into the innermost part of the bird's thigh, and the center of the stuffing. If the bird reaches the proper temperature before the stuffing, then the bird must still be cooked until the stuffing is done. For this reason, Berry says a turkey can be left more "succulent" if the stuffing is cooked on the outside. In the absence of a meat thermometer, the stuffing should always be prepared outside the bird, according to USDA recommendations, and the bird's juices should run clear when pierced with a fork.