Thanksgiving is looming and the US Department of Agriculture has published its usual warning about correctly cooking the holiday bird. USDA’s recommendation this year is to cook the turkey until the meat and the stuffing have both reached 165ºF (74ºC).
The best way to be sure that your turkey and stuffing have reached a safe temperature is to insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat (breast or thigh), and a second thermometer in the center of the stuffing. If this sounds like overkill, think about the Salmonella that might be lurking inside your bird.
Some turkeys come equipped with a plastic pop-up indicator, but these aren’t always reliable. When pop-up indicators were first introduced, a researcher in Canada tested their performance. While the temperature at which the indicators popped was consistent, their location in the breast meat often reached popping temperature before the entire bird -with or without stuffing - had finished cooking. And the bigger the bird, the higher the risk of an underdone turkey.
While most of the Thanksgiving angst is usually focussed on the turkey, the stuffing can also be a food safety risk. Stuffing a bird involves hand contact, and many people carry Staphylococcus aureus on their skin and in their nasal passages. Given enough time (4-5 hours) at the right temperature, some Staph aureus strains will produce enough toxin to cause a fine case of food poisoning. I have been told that the worst part of Staph food poisoning is knowing that you won’t die!
Avoiding Staph food poisoning is simply a matter of sanitation. Whoever is preparing or handling food should wash his or her hands thoroughly with soap and hot water before beginning and after every interruption. Large quantities of stuffing are best cooked outside the bird, so that the food cooks more quickly. Leftovers must be refrigerated promptly and in shallow containers so that they cool down quickly. Otherwise, a bullet dodged during the initial feast might evolve into a leftover land mine.
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.