Monday, November 22, 2010

Food Smarts - Happy & Safe Thanksgiving

I remember moving to America as a child with my family and all of us embracing this wonderful holiday that we have here called “Thanksgiving.”  My mum learned how to cook a turkey (which was so wonderfully huge to us carnivores), make stuffing and incorporate our English & New Zealand side dishes to make this American tradition special to our roots us well.  I remember her diligently reviewing  the supermarket fliers to get the best deal on the price per pound for the turkey, then getting all of the shopping done, which always included that frozen turkey on sale (cheap, cheap, cheap) and all the other fixings to make the stuffing and gravy.   

Then the night before, the show would start.  She would pull that big bird out of the freezer and leave it in the kitchen sink overnight and then get up first thing in the morning to wrestle with the bird to butter it up and cover it in herbs and stuff it with her special concoction for the stuffing.  We always knew to stay out of her way whilst she was wrestling with the bird.  We were always comatose after the feast.  The Thanksgiving meal is a wonderful American tradition that really celebrates being thankful for family.  How many of you have the same traditions?

Now that I’ve been teaching ‘Food Smarts’ for over a decade now, I recognize some gross mistakes were made by my lovely mother.  My, how times have changed.  A turkey is the perfect potentially hazardous food as it is high in moisture, protein and has a low ph or low acidity.  This is a very happy environment for bacteria.  When my mum left the frozen turkey in the sink overnight, the exterior defrosted first and that’s obviously where bacteria can develop initially.  As more time goes on in the Temperature Danger Zone (41°F -135° F) or best known in layman’s terms as “room temperature” the turkey is a perfect environment for bacterial growth on its surface even though it could still be frozen solid in the middle.    There are four acceptable ways to defrost food according to the FDA Food Code.  1) Under refrigeration, 2) under running potable water not higher than 70°F (notice – I said the water has to be running – bacteria loves to grow in still water), 3) in a microwave, but only if you are going to cook it immediately or 4) as part of the cooking process.  Considering the size of a big turkey, the best way to defrost it – is in your refrigerator.  I have been told that for every 5 lbs, one should leave it in the fridge 24 hours to defrost.  Translation:  20 lb turkey should be taken out of the freezer and put in your fridge at least 4-5 days ahead of Thanksgiving Day to have enough time to defrost.

The other biggest mistake my mum would make preparing this amazing feast, is actually putting the stuffing inside the turkey.  Sometimes I joke with my students, that they “should do as I say, and not as I do.”  I remember personally about 8 years ago, I was in charge of cooking the Thanksgiving meal.  I knew because I teach food safety that the FDA doesn’t recommend that you stuff anything for cooking.  But, as a cook, I was conflicted as I always believed that if the stuffing was not inside the turkey whilst cooking that it wouldn’t turn out as tasty.  I finally followed my own teachings as recommended by the FDA, and voila, stuffing was just as delish!  But what truly flabbergasted me was how that big turkey cooked in hours shorter cooking time than what I was used to.  Another great benefit of not putting the stuffing in the bird was that the meat turned out juicier and not dried out.  Think about it, no stuffing in the bird means the heat is not being retained in the cooking process by the stuffing, thus resulting in less cooking time and the bird came out juicier without being over-cooked.

I would recommend a home cook to purchase a thermometer for this dish if for none else.  Salmonella can be harboring on that delicious turkey and make a lot of people sick if left undercooked.  Your turkey is properly cooked when it reaches 165°F.  Check the temperature by inserting the probe into the thickest part and if you do continue to stuff the turkey that means in the middle of the stuffing. 

Remember to wash your hands often, especially after touching the raw turkey and before touching anything else.  Don’t use the same utensils for different foods and remember don’t double dip when tasting the food.

Whatever traditions you have incorporated into preparation of your Thanksgiving Feast, be safe and enjoy!  Happy Thanksgiving to all

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