A Healthy, Happy Holiday

December 15, 2015 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Food Economics, Health by Joyce Bunderson

You’ve prepared holiday meals many times before and have been safe. But sometimes perhaps, you haven’t been exactly sure whether the family got the “flu” or if their gastric distress was due to food poisoning. Food poisoning is certainly not a happy holiday event. To significantly reduce the risk of food poisoning there are procedures that you can follow to have a healthy, happy holiday full of good times.

Today I’m not writing about the rules of separate cutting boards and knives; frequent hand washing and constant clean hands and surfaces; or how to sanitize and clean tools and surfaces; because I think you likely know all of those food safety rules. If there’s something that you wonder about, you can likely find the answer to your questions at food safety.gov. There are even helps for the children. Below I’ll touch on a few other ideas that you may need to brush up on before your holiday cooking.

Starting at the Store

If the weather is warm, or you’ll be out shopping for more than 30 minutes, put your refrigerated and frozen foods in a cooler. I’ve purchased a couple of insulated bags and put frozen items in with refrigerated items. You can also use chill packs in bags like these – the chill packs can be frozen again.

The Car

In cold weather, if you don’t have insulated bags transport the cool foods in the trunk, the coolest part of the car in wintertime.

In warm weather, transport the cold foods in insulated cooler or bag inside an air-conditioned car instead of the hot trunk.

The infamous temperature danger zone

The temperature danger zone is a critical concept to understand as related to keeping your holiday meal safe. Between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F bacteria can double approximately every twenty minutes. Note that the ordinary car and home are almost always within this danger zone. If it’s hot like summer or you’re celebrating Christmas and New Years in South Africa, New Zealand or maybe even California or Florida, then all the more reason for care.

Turkey

Many people serve turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Problem is that most birds come frozen; we’re talking hard as a rock. That baby does not thaw out on the way home from the market.

Thawing frozen turkey on the counter or under running hot water in the sink is just plain dangerous. If you ever wonder why this is not a good idea, here is the answer. The kitchen counter and/or the hot water method allow the turkey to be in the temperature danger zone (between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F) for too long. At that temperature range, bacteria (of course there’s bacteria on and in a raw turkey) can double in as little as 20 minutes.

The easiest way to thaw a turkey is to put it in the refrigerator for a couple of days before you’re ready to roast it. I know, I know, sometimes it is forgotten in the freezer. If you didn’t get the turkey transferred to the fridge, then you can still safely thaw it in the sink; only it’s more work. Keep the turkey in the original plastic wrap; place it breast-side down in a sink filled with cold tap water. Here’s where the time is involved. Set a timer for 30 minutes; and every 30 minutes change the water, always using cold water.

Gravy

The safest way to use leftover gravy is to bring it to a boil; that way harmful bacteria will not survive.

Stuffing

If you’re preparing stuffed turkey breasts, pork chops or other small meat or poultry entrees, know that the meat may reach the proper temperature, but the stuffing may not reach it, and can contain harmful bacteria. It’s safest to cook your stuffing separately in a casserole dish. Another option is to use only cooked ingredients in your stuffing; no raw poultry, shellfish or egg. If you’re adding poultry, shellfish, egg or meat to your stuffing, precook these raw ingredients before incorporating them into the stuffing. In the case of egg, use pasteurized egg.

If you have leftover stuffing inside a poultry cavity, transfer the stuffing into a sealed container, and refrigerate up to three or four days, or freeze it for longer storage.

Cooked ahead or left over hot food

Some people have the idea that you need to let the food cool down before putting in the refrigerator. People used to worry that immediately putting their hot foods in the fridge would raise the temperature of the refrigerator and cause food spoilage. Honestly, there is no need to wait. As a matter of fact, getting it immediately into the fridge will get it to a safe temperature the quickest. I usually put a hot pad under hot dishes because I’m not confident that the difference in temperatures can be sustained without sharp temperature differences cracking the glass shelves. That method has worked for me for many years – no broken shelves.

Buffet and Potluck style meals

Cool items: Remind guests to pack cold food items in plenty of ice in a well-insulated cooler or other container with cooling packs. Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees F or colder. If you know that some of the cold food will be out for longer than 2 hours, then place a bowl or plate of ice under the serving dish.

Hot items: Remind guests to pack them in a well-insulated container and place in the warmest part of the car. When they arrive, be sure to reheat to a safe internal temperature of 145 degrees F. I’ve used hand warmers around my casserole dish and wrapped with towels, then inside an insulated bag. It stays pretty hot. But still check the temp upon arrival and heat to 145 degrees F.

Hot foods on the buffet line should be kept at an internal temperature of 140 degrees F or warmer. Using a chafing dish or slow cooker makes this easy. Note: Some warming trays only hold food at 110 to 120 degrees F. It needs to be warmer (140 degrees) to stay safe. However, don’t throw the warming dish out; as it can help keep the food from cooling down too quickly. A thermometer is key to knowing when the danger temperature begins.

One of the easiest ways to manage food on a buffet table is to put out smaller amounts of food from the oven or refrigerator. It’s not only safer, but it’s more economical to not have to discard food that has been in the “temperature danger zone” for more than two hours. Prepare small serving platters ahead of time; replace each empty serving dish with a fresh one throughout the party. Don’t add fresh refill food to a nearly empty dish. Replacing an item with a freshly filled dish helps to keep the food safe from contamination from people’s hands during the party. Store cold back-up dishes in the refrigerator or keep hot dishes in the oven set at 200 degrees F prior to serving. The late arriving guests can enjoy the same appetizing arrangements as the early arrivals.

Two-hour/four-hour rule – Timer

Keeping your thermometer and timer handy is among the best habits to acquire. Set a timer to help yourself not to forget the time. Within the first 2 hours you can return the food to refrigeration below 37 degrees F to be used as leftovers or to be reheated to above 140 degrees F. After 4 hours, the food should not be returned to the refrigerator or reheated, unless you’re going to eat it immediately. The point is that food should not be stored for future use, if it has been exposed for over 2 hours.

Thermometer

Put a food thermometer on your gift list if you don’t have one. Then make it one of your favorite kitchen tools. I have quite a collection of thermometers; collected over the years. But some years ago my husband bought me my ‘go-to’ thermometer. It’s digital; it has a probe on a wire (Put it in the oven and monitor without opening the oven door.); and you set the temperature you want to achieve (You don’t have to look it up and double check yourself.). Really like that thermometer! I’ve double-checked it repeatedly and now believe it is the most accurate thermometer I’ve got.

Now some even have a timer on the same electronic thermometer and some have dual probes to follow two items. Maybe some even do the jig. Confession: It is possible to become a little obsessed with food temperatures, when your doctoral dissertation was about food safety – too much reading and writing about that vicious form of E coli with the fateful code name 0157:H7.

Storing food

Shallow containers (2 inches deep or less) cool down faster in refrigerator or freezer for rapid even cooling. Also, if you know you’re not going to be able to use all of the leftovers within a short time, put it into quart storage freezer bags. They are fairly flat and cool fairly quickly and don’t take a lot of extra space.

Cookie dough

I’ve never been drawn to raw cookie dough (Cookies yes, but not raw dough.), but some of my dear friends love the stuff. Just remember, if you’ve put raw eggs into your dough or cake batter and you can’t wait for the cooking phase, you may get food poisoning. Three choices to stay safe: Make a recipe of dough without raw eggs, use pasteurized egg or skip eating it.

Eggnog

I probably don’t need to remind you to use pasteurized egg in grandma’s recipe. Right?

The oldest food safety rule

When in doubt, throw it out! Yes, I know it’s hard, but it’s better than getting sick.

I’ve written this at the holiday time, but many of these hints will be helpful all year round. It’s worth the effort to keep the food safe and reap the benefits of a safe, merry, happy holiday.