Every year when preparing the turkey for that scrumptious holiday feast, many Americans ask themselves the same question: “Should I stuff the turkey or cook the stuffing on the side?”
Throughout my years of cooking turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I cook the stuffing outside the turkey the majority of the time. I haven’t had any complaints yet, but because most of my guests like the stuffing cooked inside the bird, I wanted to surprise them this year and give them what they have been yearning for.
As a “so-so” cook, this will be a challenge for me because in my opinion, cooking a stuffed bird is harder than cooking an unstuffed one. As a nurse, I have to make sure I cook this lovely feast properly so my guests don’t get sick.
Believe it or not, cooking a stuffed turkey has been linked to food-borne illness, mainly due to the cross-contamination of stuffing and turkey juices. Basically, if the stuffing does not reach the same internal temperature of the turkey, the bacteria from the turkey can survive during the cooking process.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 48 million Americans, or 1 in 6 people, get sick from preventable food-borne illnesses each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths. Many of these illnesses come from time-saving methods, like stuffing the turkey the night before and thawing the bird on the counter.
Anyone can experience foodborne illness, but for pregnant women, babies and the elderly who may have fragile immune systems, it is more serious.
Don’t fret! There is hope of cooking a healthy stuffed bird as long as these simple measures to protect ourselves and our families are followed. It all starts with proper food handling and preparation.
Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator at 45 degrees and not on the counter. Thawing at room temperature promotes bacteria growth. Allow 24 hours of defrosting for each five pounds of turkey.
Wash your hands! Proper hand washing is critical. Wash hands before and after handling the turkey and other food items. When preparing your meal, thoroughly wash countertops, hands, cutting boards and utensils before and after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from foods that will not be cooked.
When stuffing the turkey, stuff it loosely to ensure safe, even cooking. Since cooking a home-stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking a non-stuffed one, make sure the stuffing in the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Even if the turkey itself has reached the safe minimum internal temperature (measured in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast), the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria that may be present. Keep in mind bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 °F, which could result in foodborne illness!
Do not interrupt the cooking process, as the interruption can promote bacteria growth.
Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature, even if the turkey has a “pop up” temperature indicator. The “pop up” thermometer does not tell you the temperature of the stuffing.
Note the time that the food is kept out for guests to eat. Food kept out beyond two hours has a higher the risk of food poisoning. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
Store leftovers carefully. Remove stuffing from bird and slice the turkey before refrigerating. Store the turkey and stuffing in separate, covered containers and refrigerate at 45 degrees or below within two hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within four days, and gravy within two days.
Prevent food-borne illnesses from ruining your holiday feast by practicing safe food handling, preparation, and storage practices. This way your holiday is filled with health and happiness instead of trips to the bathroom!
For more helpful tips and information, log on to www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/poultry-preparation/lets-talk-turkey/CT_Index.