Health & Wellness: Let’s talk turkey: Myths and facts

As the holiday season rapidly approaches, many cooks are getting ready to prepare special meals and desserts. Reservations are being made for eating out and churches and organizations are preparing to collect and prepare food for the less fortunate among us. Lots of myths exist about how to make sure your food is safe. Here are a few of them.

Myth #1—You should rinse your poultry (turkey) before you cook it.
Fact—Despite efforts to clean up the poultry industry, we continue to hear about salmonella outbreaks. Salmonella is a bacteria often found on poultry, eggs, meats and other foods. The USDA no longer recommends rinsing meat and poultry before cooking. Rinsing again will not remove bacteria, and in fact can spread the raw juices around your sink, the countertop, and onto any food nearby, not to mention your hands. This can cause cross contamination.

You can only kill bacteria in your food by cooking it. Cook turkey and all poultry to 165ºF, as measured by a food thermometer. So, treat yourself this year by buying a thermometer, and then cook your turkey in an oven set to at least 325ºF. Only serve turkey or poultry when the internal cooking temperature reaches 165ºF or higher.

Myth #2—You should never put hot food in the refrigerator.
Fact—We no longer depend on blocks of ice to help our food stay cold. Our new, modern appliances are very good at cooling food down quickly. So, following your holiday meal or any meal, immediately refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. Take the meat off the bones and divide it into smaller portions. Transfer the food to small containers and place them in the fridge.

Myth #3—I can tell by looking at food that it is cooked.
Fact—No way. The safest way to determine if the food you have cooked is safe to eat is to use a food thermometer. Don’t think that because turkey juices run clear or your hamburger is brown, that the food is cooked. Use a food thermometer and check the food’s temperature. Remember, poultry needs to cook to 165ºF and ground beef to 160ºF.

Myth #4—I have been cooking for years and no one has ever gotten sick from eating my food.
Fact—Can you prove it? You never know. More than 76 million people in the United States get food borne illnesses every year. That’s one out of every four Americans. People get sick from food prepared at restaurants or at home, picked up at fast food restaurants or served at catered events. No matter how clean you and your kitchen may be, chances are that at some point someone has gotten sick from food you have prepared and served.

Myth #5—If you get sick from food it was probably from the last thing you ate.
Fact—Maybe, maybe not. Some food pathogens can begin to show symptoms within an hour after eating; others can take several days or even weeks. For example, it normally takes eight to 72 hours for salmonella symptoms to appear. So, the sickness you blame on your local restaurant at lunch may just be something you prepared a few nights ago.

Myth #6—I can make my stuffing the night before and stuff the turkey the next day.
Fact—No, according to the USDA, cooking a home-stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed. You can do some of the preparation ahead of time, but be careful. If you plan to prepare stuffing using sausage, oysters, or other raw meat, you should cook these ingredients before stuffing the turkey to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. However, do not mix wet and dry ingredients until just before spooning the stuffing mixture into the turkey cavity. Never stuff the turkey with cold stuffing; it may not be hot enough when the turkey is done.

Myth #7—Ready-prepared turkey dinners can be delivered the morning of the holiday.
Fact—If dinner is picked up or delivered hot, the food must be kept at 140°F or above if eating within two hours. It’s not a good idea to try and keep the food hot longer than two hours. If holding the food longer than two hours, remove all stuffing from the turkey cavity, divide the turkey into smaller pieces and refrigerate everything in separate, shallow containers.
Reheat thoroughly to 165°F. If cooked and refrigerated, keep cold food cold. Serve the meal within two days. Reheating a whole cooked turkey is NOT recommended.

Myth #8—I can leave the turkey on the counter or in the sink to thaw overnight.
Fact—Safe Thawing: The USDA recommends only three ways to thaw turkeys. Never defrost turkey on the counter. It’s best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Allow about one day for every four to five pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator.

Turkey may be thawed in cold water in its airtight packaging or in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the bird or cut-up parts in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to be sure it stays cold. Cook the turkey immediately after it thaws.

Turkey thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed.

Please be careful when handling holiday meals and leftovers. Follow the safe food handling rules and have a happy and healthy holiday.

Prepared by Drusilla Banks, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness; University of Illinois Extension in Bourbonnais, IL.

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