Carin Booth: Take the right precautions to keep holiday meals safe

A large crowd to cook for, a big bird to roast and too many cooks in the kitchen can lead to foodborne illness from holiday dining. But handling and cooking a turkey should not be an illness waiting to happen.

Following basic recommendations will help ensure safe food and prevent foodborne illness for diners, not only during the holidays but year-round.

Carin Booth

First be sure to keep everything clean. That includes your hands and kitchen surfaces while you are preparing holiday meals. Wash hands and kitchen surfaces often with hot, soapy water. Also wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils after preparing each food item and before you start another food item. Use paper toweling for cleaning up kitchen surfaces. Keep sponges out of the kitchen; they are not food-safe.

Next, always separate raw and ready to eat foods. Cross-contamination is the scientific word for how bacteria can be spread from one food product to another. This process begins at the grocery store and continues to carry-home bags and your refrigerator.

Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry and seafood and another cutting board for ready-to-eat foods. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat and poultry unless the plate has been thoroughly cleaned.

Cook food to the proper temperature. Use a food thermometer to make sure meat and poultry are cooked to a proper temperature and keep an internal temperature chart handy. Whole chicken and turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be safe. Use a calibrated food thermometer to check the turkey for doneness.

For reasons of personal preference, it is still best to cook turkey to higher temperatures such as 180 F to remove pink appearance and rubbery texture. Thoroughly reheat leftovers to 165 F internal temperature and be sure to bring gravies, sauces and soups to a rolling boil.

Finally, chill everything promptly. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours by placing them in shallow containers to cool rapidly. Keep the refrigerator temperature at 40 F or below and the freezer at 0 F. Monitor the temperature with an appliance thermometer.

Always thaw food in the refrigerator, in a cold-water bath or in the microwave, and marinate foods in the refrigerator.

If you decide to serve foods on a buffet-style line, maintaining the proper temperature of foods is crucial to food safety success. Hot foods should be held at 140 F or above and cold foods should be at 40 F or below. The range of temperatures between 40-140 is known as the danger zone and is where harmful foodborne bacteria grow most rapidly. To keep foods hot, serve them in chafing dishes, slow cookers  or on the stovetop.

Cold foods can be kept at safe temperatures by nesting their containers in bowls of ice. If it is not possible to use these hot or cold holding methods, serve the food on small platters that will be replaced frequently. Never mix old food with new. Be sure to check the internal temperature of the food often with a calibrated food thermometer. If the food stays in the danger zone for more than two hours, it should be discarded.

(Sources: Cooperative Extension, The University of Georgia, Athens. October 2015. Elizabeth L. Andress, Ph.D. UGA Professor and Food Safety Specialist; Cooperative Extension, The University of Georgia, Athens. Released by Elizabeth L. Andress and Judy A. Harrison.)


Carin Booth is the family and consumer sciences agent at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Office in Hall County. She can be reached at 770-535-8293 or boothc@uga.edu


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