Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES -- The holiday season typically means spending time with family and enjoying special meals. But the festivities can turn sour if unsafe food causes holiday illnesses.
A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that 97 percent of turkeys harbor up to five different kinds of bacteria, said a New Mexico State University home economist.
"Proper handling of fresh and frozen turkeys is critical to prevent the growth of bacteria," said Patricia Aaron, with NMSU's Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service office. "It's important to store them correctly, cook them correctly, serve them correctly and put away leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer within a reasonable length of time."
Fresh turkeys should be cooked within two to three days. Frozen turkeys should be thawed in the refrigerator. "It's going to take about 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey," she said. "So, that means a 20-pound turkey needs to go into the refrigerator about five days before you're planning to cook it."
Aaron recommends baking a turkey at no lower than 325 degrees. To test for doneness, insert a meat thermometer into the fleshy part of the thigh. The meat and any stuffing should reach 165 degrees to prevent bacterial growth.
After the turkey is removed from the oven and its temperature falls below serving temperature of 140 degrees, the two-hour rule goes into effect.
"You've got a maximum of two hours to refrigerate or freeze any uneaten food," Aaron said. "The two-hour rule applies to all foods -- turkey, ham, salads, side dishes and desserts."
For cooks who prefer to prepare the turkey ahead of time, Aaron recommends completely cooking the turkey, slicing all meat off, then refrigerating the meat. Reheat before serving.
Holiday leftovers can be kept safely in the refrigerator for two to three days. "If you want to keep things longer, wrap them, put them in the freezer, then use within two to three months," she said.
A clock and an accurate kitchen thermometer are the best defenses to keep food and family members safe. "It's really worth the investment," Aaron said. "During the holidays, there are so many guests and visitors. You sure don't want a large group of people getting sick, let alone your own family."
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