6 Food Safety Tips for the Holidays
There’s a great debate in the countertop industry about which countertops breed bacteria and which ones do not. I think it’s all hype. It doesn’t matter if you have a Corian, granite or wood countertop. They all breed bacteria. While wood offers more crevices for bacteria to flourish in, the grout around granite and Corian countertops is an equal opportunity locale for bacteria to breed in. Stainless steel is far less porous than any other countertop material, and easier to sterilize, but improper food handling can deem your expensive stainless steel countertop as toxic to your intestines as wood can. Consider that most restaurants have stainless steel counters in their kitchens, and the Center for Disease Control reports that 71 percent of foodborne illnesses are from restaurant food.
Christmas is a particularly risky time for foodborne illnesses, since people who are unfamiliar with handling large amounts of poultry are handling, um, large amounts of poultry. No countertop material can protect you from foodborne illness. Instead, these steps can. Wait — first, read this exhaustively thorough guide to cooking poultry safely from the USDA.
1. Before you prepare Christmas dinner, sterilize your counters, sink, and cutting boards. First, scrub them with hot (boiling) soapy water (and then throw out the sponges you used to scrub them). Then spray a solution of bleach and water on them. Wipe off the bleach solution with disposable paper towels. If you’re all natural and won’t use bleach, you can use vinegar. Generally I’m natural at home, but when cooking a large meal for a crowd, I pull out the big guns and use bleach to prep my kitchen counter and cutting boards.
2. It’s more environmentally friendly to use dish towels than paper towels, but they breed bacteria like nobody’s business. If you’re handling poultry, meat or raw eggs, just use paper towels. If you can’t bear to throw away paper towels, then be sure to have a stock of clean dish towels on hand so that when one gets contaminated with raw meat or eggs, you can replace it with a clean one.
3. Beware of cross contamination. Your raw turkey is probably harboring some serious bacteria. You have to be vigilant about wiping up any liquid that drips from it with bleach or vinegar. Use separate cutting boards for the turkey and vegetables. Don’t even think about using a knife for preparing two different dishes without washing it in hot soapy water first. Keep raw eggs, poultry, and other food ingredients far away from each other. If your turkey is defrosting in your refrigerator and drips on your lettuce, and then someone eats that lettuce, they can expect to spend at least the next 24 hours vomiting and having diarrhea. Defrost your turkey in a pan with deep walls, and protect the other ingredients in your fridge with plastic bags.
4. Buy a meat thermometer. Undercooked turkey is just plain mean. Your guests might not be able to tell the difference by taste between a turkey that was cooked to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees F and one that was not cooked to temperature, but they’ll know when their stomach cramps start. Even if your turkey has a pop up thermometer, you still need to check the temperature with a meat thermometer.
5. Don’t stuff your turkey. Stuffing is to bacteria as water is to fish — they breed in it. It’s likely that your stuffing won’t cook through, and the raw eggs in it will mix with uncooked turkey juices for an illness-inducing bacteria party. Have a heart and cook your stuffing in a separate casserole dish. Trust me, no one will complain.
6. Be careful of botulism. Botulism is best known as a paralytic illness you can get from canned foods, but frozen, pre-cooked foods also harbor it. Be as careful in the freezer section as you would be in the raw meat section.
With that said, have a merry and safe Christmas!