Let's Talk Turkey: Take Safety Precautions to Prevent Food Poisoning

Things just ain't what they used to be, and that's why it's important to take more safety measures these days when preparing turkey or chicken, says Cathy Hix Cunningham, professor of Food and Nutrition at Tennessee Technological University and host of "Cumberland Cooking with Cathy" on WCTE public television.

"Salmonella bacteria is present in more poultry products than ever before," says Cunningham, citing antibiotic resistance as one cause, as well as the possible existence of strains of bacteria that are passed on genetically from one bird to another. "The chance of salmonella being present on your bird is much higher than it has been in the past."

So, unless you want to gamble on a really unhappy holiday, Cunningham suggests the following basic safety guidelines:

1. Keep your bird cold.

"Once you get your turkey, you have to make sure it doesn't thaw on the way home. You need to make provisions," says Cunningham. If the trip home from the grocery store takes more than half and hour, consider bringing an ice chest for the poultry to travel home in. On a cold day, the bird will probably be fine in the trunk.

"The worst case scenario would be a bird in a single plastic bag by itself in the car with the heater on. Thawing begins on the wing tips within half an hour, and if you put it in the 'fridge when you get home, it cools back down, and the salmonella bacteria are having a square dance!"

2. There are only two safe ways to thaw meat: in the refrigerator or in an ice bath.

"Never at room temperature," says Cunningham. "That's like a bacterial time-bomb sitting on your counter." At room temperature, bacteria multiply at an exponential rate. By the time the bird is fully thawed, the wings and legs are so bacteria-ridden, they're inedible, even though you can't see or smell any difference.

In the refrigerator, poultry thaws at a rate of six pounds per 24 hours. The bird should remain wrapped in plastic, and you should place it on a dish or pan so that it does not drip onto any other foods.

An ice bath thaws the turkey in about half that time, but it's important that the turkey be covered in ice, not cold water. Every so often, pour off the water and add more ice. This may mean tending to the bird throughout the day and night. "Who wants to baby-sit a bird?!" exclaims Cunningham.

The microwave oven is not an option: whole birds are just too thick. (One of the myths of microwaves is that they cook from the center; Cunningham says the heat penetrates only about half an inch, and the rest of your food is cooked by heat conduction.)

"What you end up with is a thawed bird in which the bacteria are having a square dance again. They'd be reproducing in the microwave."

3. Do not stuff the bird.

"I recommend not stuffing the bird. Too much can go wrong. Stuffing makes the bird much more dense: by the time the center of the stuffing is cooked, the outside is way overcooked," says Cunningham.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also frowns on stuffing an uncooked bird, but recommends that if you do, plan to use a meat thermometer to test doneness. Combine the wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing immediately before placing it in the bird, and pack the cavity loosely. When a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the turkey thigh reads at least 180 degrees, then check the stuffing, and cook until the stuffing registers 165 degrees. Do not try to remove the stuffing from the turkey to finish cooking it, warns Bessie Berry, manager of the U.S.D.A. Meat and Poultry Hotline.

Berry says bacteria in stuffing can come from the inside cavity of the bird, the ingredients in the stuffing (such as eggs) or the person preparing the stuffing. Such bacteria can only be killed by thorough cooking.

To better ensure safety and a good quality bird, cook the stuffing in a separate dish alongside the turkey for the last 30 minutes of cooking time. If you like, place the turkey on a platter for serving and spoon the stuffing around it for decoration.

4. The best way to know when the turkey is fully cooked is by using a meat thermometer.

With a meat thermometer -- and only a meat thermometer -- test the temperature of the turkey at the center of the thigh and also in a few other thick spots. Cunningham says when it reaches 185 degrees, the turkey is done. You can also poke the turkey with a skewer and check the juices. When the juice runs clear, not pink, the turkey is done.

Cunningham discourages the method of twisting the leg of the bird to check doneness, which she refers to as "shaking hands with your bird." The leg moves easily in its socket when it's done, but it is firm in the socket both when it's underdone and overdone, so it's possible to miss that period in which the turkey is just right.

Pop-up devices "just don't tell you how long it is till dinner," says Cunningham.

Also, allow 30 minutes for the turkey to set after you take it out of the oven, Cunningham advises. It continues to cook during this time, and it also firms up, making it much easier to carve. The rest of the meal should be served hot. Cunningham always warms her plates before serving, which can be done in the oven or in some dishwashers. It's not a necessity, "but it keeps the quality of the food at its peak," she notes.

5. Don't leave out leftovers.

"Refrigerate leftovers in small portions as soon after the meal is over as you can," says Cunningham. "Leftover turkey will chill faster if it's sliced off of the bone. I like to freeze part of it, especially if I'm not going to use it the next day."

Cunningham adds, "Food poisoning is not rampant, but it's much more prevalent than one would think. Why be sorry? Be safe! When in doubt, throw it out!"

If you have any questions about preparing, cooking or storing turkey, call the U.S.D.A.'s year-round Meat and Poultry Hotline at 800-535-4555 or the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line anytime throughout November and December at 800-323-4848.

Healthy Holiday Eating

For most people, Christmas, like Thanksgiving, is all about food. So why not enjoy it? "All food is good," pronounces Cathy Hix Cunningham, professor of Food and Nutrition at Tennessee Technological University and host of "Cumberland Cooking with Cathy" on WCTE public television.

Instead of fasting all day so you can binge at the big meal or obsessing over the number of fat grams in every bite, Cunningham suggests you enjoy the many tasty treats of the holiday season with a little moderation, a little restraint and a few substitutions. She offers these tips to avoid overeating at the holidays.

1. Eat half portions. You'll save half the calories and fat.

2. Eat more slowly. Enjoy each bite. Interact with others at the table.

3. Drink juice or "mock-tails" instead of alcoholic beverages.

4. Skip the casseroles, especially ones made with high-salt condensed soups.

5. Skip the turkey skin. Also, choose white meat over dark -- it has less fat and cholesterol.

6. Eat a healthy appetizer, like raw vegetables or fruit chunks, at least 30 minutes before the meal. An appetizer, as its name suggests, stimulates the desire to eat, but quells the desire to eat a large quantity.

If you're doing the cooking, opportunities to lighten up the menu are everywhere. Use low-fat or even non-fat dairy products whenever possible. For baking, substitute applesauce, baby food, even cooked, mashed yams for some of the butter. If you need help, call the Land O'Lakes Holiday Bakeline at 800-782-9606 or the Pillsbury baking hotline at 800-767-4466.

Staving Off a Hungry Crowd

Mistakes and miscalculations happen even to the best of chefs. If you anticipate that your holiday feast may take a little longer to prepare than you had planned, Cathy Hix Cunningham suggests you have a few items on hand to quiet down the grumbling stomachs of your guests.

Cunningham, professor of Food and Nutrition at Tennessee Technological University and host of "Cumberland Cooking with Cathy" on WCTE public television, points out that appetizers can quiet down those grumblings without spoiling dinner. An appetizer, as its name suggests, stimulates the desire to eat, but quells the desire to eat a large quantity.

Here are a few suggestions for keeping your guests satisfied while you finish cooking the main meal. All of these items can be prepared in advance or purchased from a store ready to go when you need them.

  • Soup: a hearty soup makes a terrific starter
  • Virgin Bloody Mary cocktails or vegetable juice with celery stalks
  • Tortilla chips and salsa: quick, easy and low in fat!
  • Vegetables or crackers and dips, such as a low-fat, yogurt-based dip
  • Fruit cocktail or fruit chunks and a cream-cheese dip
  • Pita bread and hummus (chick pea dip)
  • Bread sticks
  • Nuts in the shell or dried fruit and nut mixes
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