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Plan For Safe Holiday Meals
By Amy Woolfolk
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- When holiday shopping and decorating are top priorities, neglecting to give enough time and attention to food preparation can result in unsafe food.
Dr. Melissa Mixon, extension nutrition specialist at Mississippi State University, pointed to several mistakes that often lead to food contamination.
Time and Temperature
"Abuse of time and food temperature is probably the most common mistake," she said.
Food has a temperature danger zone that ranges from 40 degrees to 140 degrees. Leaving food in this range for more than two hours creates conditions favorable for bacteria growth.
"Two hours seems like a long time, but when you include cooking, serving and cooling time, it really is not," the specialist said. "Store food immediately after eating. Don't sit at the table while you're food goes bad."
Refrigerate food immediately after eating rather than allow it to cool on the counter.
Mixon said to store food in small, shallow containers so it can cool more quickly. Cool thick, soupy foods in an ice bath before refrigerating since they can take many hours to cool.
Take extra care in serving from a buffet. Make sure hot foods are kept at or above 140 degrees, while cold foods should stay under 40 degrees.
Another rule to follow when serving a buffet is to replace food, not replenish it.
"If you continually add fresh food to old food on a buffet, you lose track of how long some food has been out," Mixon said. "Some food may have been out over two hours, so always put out a fresh tray and take up the old one each time."
Cross contamination is another problem that often arises in the kitchen, Mixon said. This is caused by failure to wash hands and utensils thoroughly between working with different foods.
"It is especially important to clean utensils and hands after you have worked with raw meat and before you work with foods that will not be cooked, such as sandwiches or vegetables," the specialist said.
Mixon also offered advice on safe ways to thaw and prepare the holiday turkey. She recommended thawing the bird over several days in the refrigerator. Allowing one day for every five pounds of turkey is a safe guideline.
Turkeys can also be thawed under cold running water, in the microwave or in the cooking process.
"If you thaw a turkey in the microwave, you must be prepared to cook it immediately," Mixon said. "Don't put it in the refrigerator before cooking. If you plan for the bird to thaw while cooking, be sure to add extra time."
Cook turkeys at a temperature no less than 325 degrees. To check the bird for doneness, use a meat thermometer in several places. Turkey is done when the temperature in the thigh reaches 180 degrees and the thickest part of the breast reaches 170 degrees.
Mixon said to cook holiday stuffing in a pan separate from the turkey.
"When stuffing is cooked in the turkey, the turkey often gets done before the stuffing," Mixon said. "Because stuffing contains the ingredients common for bacteria growth, the turkey acts as an incubator, and the result is unsafe stuffing."
The mounds of food prepared for the holidays usually result is some leftovers, but Mixon warned against keeping leftovers too long.
"Two or three days is probably as long as you want to keep leftovers," she said. "Gravy and sauces should not be kept more than 24 hours."
The specialist also said it is best to serve leftovers only once. When reheating, cover the dish and use a thermometer to make sure the food reaches at least 165 degrees.