NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Next week will be one of the biggest cooking holidays of the year, with families sitting down to lunch and dinner for Thanksgiving. But with all the hustle and bustle in the kitchen, something that could make the holiday a mess is not taking key precautions for food safety.
According to Micah Pierce, a registered dietician at TriStar Centennial Medical Center, there are four key components to keeping all the Thanksgiving main and side dishes safe for all family and friends.
“First and foremost I always talk about hand hygiene. Your hands touch pretty much everything, so I usually recommend people wash them with hot, soapy water,” Pierce told News 2. “You don’t have to use antibacterial or antimicrobial soap. Normal soap with hot water, if you’re scrubbing properly, will pretty much kill anything and wash it away. The scrubbing is the key part, so sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song in your head while you’re scrubbing your hands. It’s usually about 60 seconds. Sing it twice if you’re not sure.”
If your house is anything like his, there will be “lots of cooks in the kitchen,” Pierce said, so all parties need to follow the handwashing rule.
“Have everybody wash their hands before, during and after,” he said.
In addition to washing your hands before preparing any food, Pierce said you also need to be washing your hands in between meal prep courses.
“Any time you switch roles, like if you’re carving the turkey or playing with vegetables, wash your hands between,” he said. “We don’t want any cross-contamination there. Or, if you step away to use the restroom, pet the dog, throw the football, make sure that you’re washing your hands after each step or between certain kinds of foods.”
Secondly, Pierce said, the hygiene of all surfaces and utensils is key.
“If you’re running out of spoons, you might use the same spoon to scoop the green beans as the mashed potatoes,” he said. “Strongly recommend just having dedicated utensils for dedicated items and washing in between if you need to.”
To prevent cross-contamination of surfaces, Pierce recommended using antimicrobial products such as bleach to keep countertops, tables and oven tops cleaned between courses.
“Basically, you want to make sure all your surfaces are cleaned and sanitized,” he said. “If you are cleaning a cutting board, also clean the surface underneath the cutting board where it sat down. Sometimes there can be spillage or leakage, especially if you’re handling raw things like the bird this holiday season.”
The biggest concern for cross contamination is salmonella, Pierce said, which is commonly associated with poultry, but another bacteria of concern is campylobacter, which he said could grow on any foods and spread accordingly. Another bacterium of concern for any families who introduce seafood to their Thanksgiving feast is shigella, though he said it would be less common since it was mostly associated with shellfish, and most Thanksgiving spreads don’t include shellfish.
While cooking, Pierce said make sure all your hot prepared foods are at least 165 degrees internally, especially your turkey.
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“The turkey needs to be 165 at the thickest part, which is usually the breast meat,” he said.
That section will take the longest part to cook, Pierce added, so if you prefer to have more tender dark meat, like thighs, drumsticks and wings, you might consider breaking your turkey down into individual parts and cook them separately in order to keep them all at the same relative temperature.
“Some people like to start the breasts ahead of time, and then you add the rest as a follow-up,” he told News 2.
Otherwise, what is likely to happen is the white meat will be cooked perfectly, but the dark meat may end up overcooked. But there are ways to prevent that from happening and to give every family their picture-perfect Norman Rockwell turkey.
“One way to prevent that dryness is to salt or brine your turkey ahead of time,” he said. “You can do a dry brine or a liquid brine. You can make a liquid brine recipe of two gallons of water and one-and-a-half cup of salt. You can also add in some herbs and other seasonings—I recommend bay leaves, orange peel, rosemary, black peppercorns, whatever else you like—and you’ll let that soak for 24 to 48 hours. Do this in refrigeration after the bird is already thawed.”
A dry brine, on the other hand, Pierce said, involves covering the bird with salt, with or without an adhering agent such as mustard, hot sauce or apple cider vinegar. Like the liquid brine, the dry brined bird should sit in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours before preparation.
“What that’ll do is it’ll penetrate your bird with salt all the way to its core, and then it’ll actually help keep it moist, because sodium retains moisture,” he said. “Whatever method you choose to cook your bird, it can stay juicy.”
Once everything is cooked, however, there are some concerns for storing those leftovers, Pierce said.
“Temperature is your main component here,” he told News 2. “Whether you’re going to freeze it or refrigerate foods, make sure you’re not sealing containers with hot foods, becasue that just traps the temperature in. Let foods come to a more suitable temperature, close to room temperature before you actually seal them off.”
For larger vessels of certain foods, like mashed potatoes or gravy, portion the leftovers out into several smaller containers prior to refrigerating or freezing. This will allow the food to cool off quicker and avoid any temperature-related bacteria that could grow in what Pierce calls the “danger zone.”
“We refer to the ‘danger zone’ as anywhere above 40 degrees up to 140 degrees,” he said. “At those temperatures, that’s when bacteria can grow, so when food is in that range, that’s when you want to seal it. If it’s above that range, it’s too hot to seal, because it’ll hold that ‘danger zone’ temperature for too long. If you let things come to a more manageable temperature, something like room temperature before it’s sealed, it can help a rapid cool-down. You want it to hold at your refrigerator temp or lower, usually about 40 degrees.”
If you’re freezing your leftovers, Pierce recommends using zip-top freezer bags or plastic containers with the date they were cooked and frozen written on top so you know how long the food has been in the freezer.
One way families can try to cut down on the kitchen chaos during Thanksgiving is to pre-cook items ahead of time that only have to be heated up on Thanksgiving day.
“Just make sure they’re storing it, temperature-wise, safely before they travel it to the place where it’s going to be served to help preserve some of your real estate in the one kitchen,” he said. “Oven space tends to be the real estate where people start to argue over.”
If you’re bringing one of the side dishes, like the green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, or mashed potatoes, cook those at home and transport them in an insulated carrying case like those available from Anchor or Pyrex, Pierce added.
You can also choose to cook the turkey the day before and heat it back up on the actual day.
“If it’s a little dry, you can always add gravy,” he said. “That’s what it’s there for.”
As for Pierce, he said he may be the “world’s worst dietician,” because he’s looking forward to dessert.
“I go straight to the pie,” he told News 2. “I can’t go without the pecan pie and the pumpkin pie, but as far as the traditional fare, I love the green bean casserole and, of course, the turkey is the main event.”