I admit it – I'm a total food safety geek! I love talking about proper cooking temperatures and how to prevent cross-contamination. By putting my passion into action each Thanksgiving, I'm assured that my family and friends can enjoy amazing food and drink and leave with great memories. The last thing I want everyone to remember is a holiday filled with stomachaches and other unmentionable tummy troubles. Luckily, there are very simple steps you can take to prevent a foodborne illness from hitting your Thanksgiving table. Here are my top eight:
1. Choose your food carefully.
There's nothing worse than opening a spoiled package when preparing Thanksgiving dinner and needing to run back to the grocery store! Give yourself ample time to shop and check the quality of your food products. Check the color, texture, packaging and firmness of the fruits, vegetables, meats and other goodies you buy at the market.
2. Store food immediately.
Once you pay for all of your Thanksgiving products, go home immediately. Although Black Friday sales have begun in many stores, avoid the temptation and get those foods home. A few hours in the car is ample time for potentially dangerous microorganisms to multiply on your goods. Get everything home within the hour and store it promptly in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry.
3. Defrost meat properly.
That big mama of a turkey or ham usually comes frozen and needs to be defrosted before you cook it. Do not defrost it on the countertop overnight. You'll have meat juices contaminating your countertop, which could even drip into kitchen drawers and turn into a huge bacterial mess.
Instead, make room in your refrigerator several days before you plan to cook. The rule of thumb is to place the turkey or ham in the refrigerator for 24 hours per five pounds of whole turkey to defrost it. Place it in a sheet pan to catch any juices that may drip.
4. Do not rinse your meat.
Many folks rinse their meat or poultry thinking it helps remove bacteria. Unfortunately, rinsing can do the exact opposite and spread bacteria around your kitchen! The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends not to rinse your meat because those meat juices could end up splattering all over your sink and countertop, which can get on other dishware and foods. As long as you take the proper steps to thaw, prep and cook your turkey, it should be perfectly safe to eat – no rinsing needed.
5. Don't overstuff the turkey.
To stuff or not to stuff the turkey? That is the question. You can prepare and cook the stuffing separately, which is always the safest route. If you must stuff your turkey, then fill it lightly with 3/4 cups of stuffing per pound of turkey just before roasting it. Moist – not dry – stuffing is best, and should be spooned loosely into the cavity so it can cook through.
6. Cook the turkey properly.
That bad boy needs to be cooked to the proper temperature in order to destroy harmful bacteria. The best way to ensure the doneness of your poultry is not by looking at the color of the meat, but by using a meat thermometer. Check your turkey in two locations – the thickest part and an outer area (such as the wing or leg) to make sure it reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit in both locations. After your turkey reaches the proper internal cooking temperature, let it sit for 20 minutes or so in order to complete the cooking processes. Then, it's ready to be carved.
7. Serve food hot.
Now that your food is nice and warm, don't let it sit around too long. Bacteria thrive on warm, moist food and you don't want to give them an opportunity to grow. Serve the food hot within two hours of cooking. If guests are running late, keep your turkey and other foods warm in the oven at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
8. Store leftovers safely.
Hopefully you don't have too many leftovers, but if you do, they shouldn't sit out for half the night. Once everyone is done devouring the main course, store it in the refrigerator within two hours. For leftover turkey, remove the stuffing and store it separately. Then debone the turkey and slice it into 2-inch pieces. Leftover veggies, casseroles and other treats should be stored in resealable food-grade containers and enjoyed within several days.
Click through the gallery below to learn other ways to be the best Thanksgiving hostess: