The uninvited guest at a holiday feast
Holiday mealtime a boon for bacteria
November 18, 1999
By Cathryn Meurer
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The harried host who picks up turkey and fixings from a caterer would do well to bring home a high-tech food thermometer too, for a delicious holiday meal that doesn't bite back a few hours later as food poisoning.
The safe handling of all foods at a holiday meal, whether home-made or take-out, turkey or squash casserole, is the aim of the International Food Safety Council(IFSC), which is distributing information to restaurants and consumers this fall.
"Handling food safely is especially important during the holidays because food is often prepared in advance and served buffet style," Caitlin Storhaug wrote in a publication from the IFSC.
Bacteria multiply rapidly when food is left at room temperature (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), and Storhaug advises after two hours on a buffet, food should be tossed. Holiday meals, which can be long, multi-course affairs, with diners sneaking back later for seconds, can offer the perfect environment for bacterial growth.
"If in doubt," Storhaug says, "throw it out."
Just about all foods which are reheated, not just stuffing, need to reach a temperature hot enough to kill bacteria. For sauces, custards, and casseroles made with eggs, that's 165 degrees Fahrenheit. And that's where new high-tech food thermometers come in -- checking food temperatures faster than a teen-ager can gobble up sweet-potato pie.
Instant-read thermometers have a slim metal probe which measures food, liquid and even air temperature, in seconds, from 14 to 392 degrees Fahrenheit. They sell for around $20.
A thermometer fork draws rave reviews from the people who run the Meat and Poultry Hotline, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's digital display shows the temperature of very thin foods instantly by simply inserting the tines into a hamburger or pork chop, for example.
The USDA reports only 50 percent of cooks actually bother with a thermometer, which the USDA sees as a critical problem, especially for turkey and stuffing.
Stuffing, or dressing, cooked with the delectable juices of a Thanksgiving turkey must reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria. And that sometimes means dressing needs further cooking after the turkey is done. USDA Food Safety experts say turkey can reach the proper internal temperature of 180 degrees, measured in the innermost part of the thigh, before the stuffing reaches 165 degrees.
Another new gadget useful for cooking turkeys is an oven cord thermometer/timer. Once the sensor is placed in the food, the cook never need open the oven door again until a beep signals that the food is ready. A flat metal cord connects the sensor to a digital display which stays outside the oven.
The USDA gives complete guidance on turkey safety through it's Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-(800)535-4555, and web site: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/. Among the turkey no-nos: cooking the gobbler below 325 degrees and defrosting the bird on the kitchen counter.
A spectacular holiday meal deserves to be relived with scrumptious leftovers, and the experts say if properly stored, foods can be safely enjoyed for three to four days.
Comfort House: Kitchen thermometers
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