• Monday, November 21, 2011

    The Big Turkey Day!

    Did you know that according to records, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people shared beef and (undisclosed) fowl at the first Thanksgiving? No one is sure why the large bird has become so closely associated with our National Day of Thanksgiving. I know that my turkey-farmer neighbors appreciate it.
    According to the National Turkey Federation website, 88% of American’s eat turkey on Thanksgiving. It is estimated that American’s consumed 46 million turkeys last Thanksgiving. In fact, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter that he preferred the turkey over the eagle for the Official National Bird. Hmmm… Maybe Virginia Tech is on to something.
    There is A LOT of information on the internet about cooking your meal on Thanksgiving Day. Some good websites include www.foodsafety.org, the USDA, www.eatturkey.com, www.butterball.com, the Honeysuckle White Company, and the Food Network. Be careful if you just Google “Turkey”, unless of course you are interested in a trip to Istanbul. You can also search the twitter for #turkey, #turkeytweet, #Thanksgiving, #trkytips, or #turkeychat. I think you could read about Thanksgiving food safety and holiday meal preparation on the internet from now until… Valentine’s Day… really. There is no way I could cover it all in one post, so I’m trying to hit the high points and give you lots of resources if you have more questions.
    So, you are planning to cook a huge meal for friends and family this Thursday? Hopefully you’ve already cleaned out your fridge and bought all your ingredients.
    You want to make sure that your family is healthy for the long holiday weekend. You don’t want food poisoning during your big shopping trip on Friday. A couple of months ago, I wrote a Food Safety Post and talked about the 4 simple steps for food preparation and storage. Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. Be sure to keep those in mind all day.


    First, wash your hands with soap and warm water before you get started. Make all your helpers wash their hands. (On a side note, if anyone has the sniffles, send them to watch football. Letting them help you cook is an ideal way to spread their germs to everyone else.) Be sure to wash your hands after you’ve handled any raw meat or eggs.
    Use a soap and warm water to wash down all the counter tops and cutting boards. Be sure to wash all your utensils with soap and warm water after you’ve used them. If there are lots of helpers in the kitchen, be sure to wash utensils that have been used on raw meat or eggs right away. You don’t want anyone to accidently reuse them on something that’s already been cooked.

    The bird.

    Thawing. The best way to thaw a turkey is in the fridge, but remember it will take about 24 hours per 4-5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the fridge. That means a 16 to 20 pound bird will take 4 or 5 days. Here is a link to estimated thawing times. If you really need to thaw you turkey in a few hours, you can use cold water. You will still need about 30 minutes per pound and it is suggested that you place the turkey in a plastic bag and change out the water every 30 minutes. When I was a kid, my mom and dad had a microwave that was big enough to thaw a turkey, but I haven’t seen one that large in a long time. Still, if you really want to and it will fit, you can use a microwave to thaw your turkey… chuckle.
    Keep all raw meat in the fridge until you are ready to cook it. It should be in something to catch any juices and separated from other foods.

    Marinating. Some people like to marinate or inject their turkey. You should let it set for a little while after you marinate it, before you cook it. Let it set in the fridge. You want to keep it cold. I found a video from USDA food safety about brining (marinating) a turkey for Thanksgiving.
    You can put your turkey directly into the roasting pan to get it ready to cook, usually on a small rack. Remember, everything in the roasting pan will be roasted, so it will be safe when it comes out of the oven.

    Stuffing. I am not a fan of stuffing in general (don’t tell my dad). Most food safety experts suggest that you cook your stuffing separate from your turkey. But, if you really want to stuff the bird, you need to stuff it immediately before you cook it and check that the middle of the stuffing reaches 165°F before you take it out of the oven. The uncooked juices from the Turkey will mix into the stuffing and you want to make sure that everything gets hot enough to kill any bacteria. USDA also offers a whole fact sheet on stuffing.

    Roasting. The traditional method for cooking a turkey is roasting it in the oven. The USDA has also provided a fact sheet for safely preparing your turkey called … wait for it… Let’s Talk Turkey. They are so funny at that government agency. Basically, make sure the oven it set above 325°F, allow enough time for cooking based on the size of your turkey and your own oven. The table below is from a turkey roasting page on the www.eatturkey.com website and gives time estimations for cooking a thawed turkey.

    WeightUnstuffed TurkeyStuffed Turkey
    8 to 12 pounds
    2 3/4 to 3 hours
    3 to 3 1/2 hours
    12 to 14 pounds
    3 to 3 3/4 hours
    3 1/2 to 4 hours
    14 to 18 pounds
    3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
    4 to 4 1/4 hours
    18 to 20 pounds
    4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
    4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
    20 to 24 pounds
    4 1/2 to 5 hours
    4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
    24 to 30 pounds
    5 to 5 1/4 hours
    5 1/4 to 6 1/4 hours

    You can cook a frozen turkey in the oven, but it will take at least 50% longer.

    Most importantly, USE A MEAT THERMOMETER to make sure the thickest part of breast has reached 165°F! I know that most turkeys today come with a pop-up thermometer to let you know when it’s done. Those were developed in the 60’s. Use a thermometer. I know there are lots of questions about thermometers; the Eat Turkey website has also provided a thermometer guideline page.

    Frying. I wish I knew how many people deep fry their turkeys now. I’ve tried it (eaten it, not actually fried it), and it was quite tasty (then again, it was made by my cousin Pauline, and everything she makes is tasty). Anyway, lots of people like fried turkey, including William Shatner, of Star Trek fame. I would definitely recommend watching his video about turkey frying safety. The New York Daily News wrote an article about Shatner’s turkey frying video, and included the following tips concerning safety when deep frying a turkey:

    1. Avoid spillover: Don’t overfill the pot (with oil).
    2. Turn off flame when lowering the turkey into the oil.
    3. Fry outside, away from the house.
    4. Thaw the turkey before frying.
    5. Keep a grease-fire approved fire extinguisher nearby.

    Even when you are frying your turkey. USE A MEAT THERMOMETER! Make sure the breast reaches 165°F. Never fry a stuffed turkey. Be safe and you will live long and prosper.

    The leftovers. Just like it takes a long time to cook a turkey, it takes a long time to chill turkey leftovers. Cut up the leftover turkey and place it in shallow containers in the fridge. That will allow the turkey to chill faster and keep it out of the Danger Zone. You want to get it in the fridge within 2 hours of your meal.

    What about ham? I really think ham is neglected on Thanksgiving. Our family usually has a choice of turkey or ham. The USDA has a nice fact sheet about hams. Most people buy smoked, cooked hams, so essentially all you are doing is reheating it for your meal. Cooked hams should be heated to 140°F, warm enough to get it out of the Danger Zone. The package will say whether or not it’s cooked. Some hams are smoked and uncooked, labeled ‘cook-before-eating’ and some people choose to buy fresh, uncooked hams. For those, you want to heat it to an internal temperature of 145°F and allow it to rest for 3 minutes. Just like turkey, you want to cut up your leftovers and get them in the fridge in shallow containers within 2 hours.

    Everything else. In my last post, I talked about keeping foods separate by getting different colored cutting boards for raw meat and ‘ready-to-eat’ food that won’t be cooked (fresh fruit and vegetables). Make sure everyone in the kitchen knows which cutting boards are for what. If you have a large kitchen, it might even be good to prepare raw food in one area and ready-to-eat food in another.

    I also worry about gravies on Thanksgiving. It should be treated like a meat product. Make sure it gets hot (165°F) before it’s served and get it in the fridge within two hours of the meal.

    Don’t forget, you should throw out all your Thanksgiving leftovers on Sunday night.

    I hope everyone has a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

    Please feel free to comment on my blog or the Mom at the Meat Counter Facebook Page if you have any questions or comments. I will keep an eye on it all weekend.

    Remember the Food Safety Hotline will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Thanksgiving Day. Call them toll-free at 1-888-674-6854. Or check out their Ask Karen page or app.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    Getting the kitchen ready for the holidays

    Now that we’ve switched back to the ancient, standard time, and we all get home after dark; we seem to be stuck in the house for endless hours every night. (I really don’t see much point in switching back to standard time every year; except that it makes us all appreciate day-light savings time when it comes around again in the spring.)

    So, what to do with all those extra hours trapped in your house with your family?

    One great idea is to clean out the fridge! Yay!

    With all the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the holiday season, it’s easy for your fridge to get packed in just a few short, crazy weeks. So, the week or two before Thanksgiving (right after we fall back) is the best time to clean out the fridge and get it ready.

    I always try to clean out my fridge on the night before the trash man comes, because room-temperature, out-of-date fridge contents can get pretty stinky sitting in the trash can. Check the dates (sell-by, freeze-by, or use-by dates) on all your deli meats, hot dogs, and cheeses. This is also a good chance to double-check your mayonnaise, salad dressings, and salsa, pretty much anything that’s perishable.

    I know that the dates are sometimes hard to find, so I took some pictures to give examples of where dates may be found. I can’t tell you when or where I took these pictures (for my own protection).

    Dates may be found on the back of the package or the bottom of the label. Sometimes they are on the lids of jars or the bottoms of cans. Sometimes they are not on the label at all and are printed directly on the plastic of the jar, bottle, or package.

    Mustard, barbeque sauce, frozen foods, pickled things. These all have a ‘best-by’ date. Notice that some of my examples are out-of date and some have dates that go almost two years into the future. These dates are mostly to help insure the quality of the product. If you eat them after this date, they may not taste great, but they won’t make you sick. Now, remember that this is dependent on how the food has been handled. If it has been allowed to reach room temperature after it was opened, it may not be safe, regardless of the date.
    The next set of pictures represents use-by dates, and I thought they were some good examples of where to look for dates. Again, they probably won’t make you sick if you consume them after the date expires, but it probably won’t taste very good at all. Cool whip and margarine are usually used in other dishes, so you want to make sure that their ingredients are in the best condition. If you use them after the use-by date, your final dish may not be as good. The oil in ketchup will separate out as it gets older. The artificial sweeteners in diet drinks lose their sweet flavor after a few months, so that Diet Coke may taste like bitter, fizzy water. Salsa and picante sauce may fall in this category, too. I have found that they are prone to mold growth, even in the fridge. Ick….
    In this last group of pictures, some of the dates say “best-by” and some just have a printed date. These pictures are meats or foods largely made with milk and egg products which are good places for bacteria to grow. So, for meats, mayonnaise, yogurt, cheese sauce, and those types of products, I would stick with the dates. Throw out anything that is past the date on the package. I would put ranch dressing in this category, too.

    Ok… back to cleaning out the fridge.

    Toss out any left-over’s older than 3-days old. I am guilty of keeping leftovers until they would make good science projects, but we never eat them. We just make funny faces as they go in the trash.

    Remember that you are trying to make more room. Sometimes I find two opened packages of the same food and condense them. Empty the shelves all the way to the back. Check the date on everything in the door.

    This is a good chance to wash the refrigerator shelves and the drawers with hot, soapy water. You might also want to put in a fresh box of baking soda.

    Are you planning to thaw some large meat items in your fridge on Turkey day? (You know… a turkey.) Get a big space cleaned out so you can put it on the bottom shelf. Make sure you have a tray or plate big enough to put it in to catch the juices while it’s thawing. Also, double check that the shelf above is not too low and that your turkey won’t be touching it. Most refrigerators today have adjustable shelves, so you can make the space above the bottom shelf as big as you need it.

    You will need to allow 1 day of thawing for every 5 lbs of frozen turkey. So, be ready to share your fridge with a large bird for three or four days before Thanksgiving.
    Remember that you may have to store large casserole dishes in your fridge for a while, so make sure there is room for those too. Also, they are not very tall, so you can adjust the upper shelves closer together to save room.

    Double check that your refrigerator is cold. (Remember that the temperature will rise if you have the door open, so be sure to check the temperature after the door has been closed for 20 or 30 minutes.) I like to keep mine as cold as possible without freezing my milk, but it should be set no warmer than 38°-40°F. You want to make sure that it is 40°F or cooler in every area of the fridge, so setting it lower may be necessary.

    This is a good chance to look over your shopping list for Turkey Day. Figure out the things that you need and the things that you already have. Make sure you have a meat thermometer! Food costs are going to be high this year, so you don’t want to buy ingredients that are already in the fridge or the cabinet. For example, I think I have enough salt for thirty years because I mistakenly thought I needed salt when I was planning a big meal … maybe it wasn’t me…

    I don’t have much counter space in my kitchen, so I have to spend a little time clearing off my counters before I take on a big cooking job. You also want to wash your countertops with warm soapy water. Double check that your roasting pan and casserole dishes are clean. Sometimes, if they aren’t used for several months, they can collect dust. Make sure you have at least two good cutting boards, one for food that is going to be cooked and one for food that will be eaten without being cooked. I like to use different colored cutting boards for ready-to-eat and pre-cooked foods. I also want to remind you to keep the knives and other utensils separate for ready-to-eat and pre-cooked foods.

    Or… you could spend your evenings watching TV and go to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving. Let your Mom (and, in my case, Dad) do the cooking. That’s my plan, but I still need to clean out my fridge. ;)