It’s the time of year when a lot of us are cooking for other people, sometimes lots of people. And of course most of us aren’t chefs and don’t have commercial food prep experience. Not that we need it to turn out a fine holiday meal, but it turns out we may be making some common mistakes that could result in a worse outcome than, say, a political fight around the holiday table (though that’s bad enough!).
To find out what home cooks could be doing wrong around the holidays I chatted with Ben Chapman, Ph.D., a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University who co-authors www.barfblog.com and co-hosts a food safety podcast. And by chatting I mean I peppered him with scenarios that I’ve seen done, heard of, or done myself. To protect the guilty, myself included, I won’t say which is which. Here’s how bad (or not, in some cases) he said these things are.
1. You’re out of room in the fridge so just let your dishes sit on the counter till mealtime
Short answer: it depends, Chapman said. “If it's not sitting out longer than two to three hours I'm OK. After four hours is when I get into problems like the growth of the pathogens that we worry about.” Especially when it comes to turkey, he said, “I definitely don't want it sitting out longer than four hours.”
The scary thing is that “a couple bacteria survive the cooking process,” he explained. It’s a spore actually activated by cooking, “and if I hold it at the wrong temp it can be a real issue.” Clostridium perfringens is one of the more common ones, he said, and it gets riskier the longer the turkey sits out. Filed under bad ideas he’s seen on the internet, “I've heard of people cooking the turkey overnight at a low temp and taking it out to do the sides,” he said, “not eating till mid afternoon. That's a risky way to make turkey.” The USDA recommends a minimum oven temperature of 325 °F.
Best practice, Chapman said, is to get it in the fridge “asap, if you're not going to eat it.” And if space is an issue? He’s got a fix. After carving the turkey, “I use one gallon Ziploc bags, and put the meat in there and lay it flat.” Not only will it chill faster, but it’s stackable. Maybe serving it already carved like that doesn’t have quite the same flair as tableside carving, but, he said, it beats making people sick!
2. You whip up the gravy early and put a vat of it in the fridge
If you’re cooking for a crowd (or your family just loves gravy!) and so are making a lot of gravy, Chapman said, putting a big pot in the fridge makes it hard to cool. Instead, he advised, “break it into small containers so air is moving around and it cools faster.”
3. You avoid putting anything hot in the fridge so you don’t make the temperature rise
Although this sounds logical enough, that’s another really bad idea, Chapman said. This is probably just a really outdated idea that may have carried over from earlier generations. “If your fridge is from within the last 50 years it's not doing anything by putting something hot in your fridge,” he said. While it may go up a degree or two initially, it will drop right back down.” So yes, absolutely take that dressing and put it straight in the fridge if you’re not eating soon.
4. You stash the food in the garage to keep it cold
If you have an attached garage, it may serve as the defacto walk in cooler around the holidays. And, depending on where you live, that may or may not be OK, said Chapman. He lives in North Carolina, where he definitely wouldn’t do it. At my husband’s family in Michigan, on the other hand? It’s colder in the garage than it would be in the fridge, so as long as we can protect it from “critters,” he said, while it may not be exactly the best practice, it’s not bad.
5. You transport food in your trunk to keep it chilled
You’re in charge of bringing the casserole to dinner and have a long drive so you stick in in the trunk, where it’s not heated, to stay cool. OK, I admit to having done this. But that’s a hard pass, Chapman said. “That is definitely a bad idea. Although there's no heat in my trunk it gets heat from inside my car.” Trying to keep it warm is also bad. You need a heat source to keep it at least 135 degrees, and then you risk drying it out. “The goal is really to refrigerate it,” he said.
6. You wash and immediately re-use the cutting board
It’s OK if you use your plastic board, wash it, and put it right back in service right? After all we’ve all heard we should stick with plastic cutting boards for cutting meat. But Chapman said that’s a bit of an urban legend. “I cut raw meat on a wooden cutting board,” he said. What he doesn’t do is use it while it’s damp. After washing it, he makes sure it’s completely dry before using it again. “If there are pathogens [on a wooden board] it will choke them out as they dry. It doesn't do that on a plastic one.” The plastic cutting board goes to the dishwasher on the sanitize setting, he said. Moral of the story? Maybe have a few extras available.
7. You test your turkey’s temp in the breast (or leg or wherever) and call it done
This is not a one and done. It’s super important to check the turkey for doneness in several areas, Chapman said. According to the USDA, “a food thermometer should be used to ensure a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F has been reached to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness.” So stick that thermometer in several places to confirm you’ve reached a safe temperature throughout.
8. You taste test the gravy (or whatever) and stir the pot again with the same spoon
Believe it or not, that’s “a yuck factor vs. a risk factor,” Chapman said. “Foodborne pathogens we're worried about don't live in our mouth unless we've been vomiting. Cold and flu virus, cold sores, those viruses they're not usually not transferred through food. It's pretty low risk.” That said, he added, “It's super gross.”
One potential risk, he said, is if someone has had norovirus recently. Even if they no longer have symptoms “They may still be shedding that virus,” he said, but even then, “it’s mainly in their poop.”
But can we all just agree it’s gross, and let’s not do it?
9. You let Fido clean the plate
Your best friend is more than willing to serve as a pre-rinse cycle. How bad is it to let him? First be sure there’s nothing that can harm him on the plate, like turkey bones that can splinter, or unsafe ingredients.
But as for the safety of anyone who gets that dish in its next rotation? Remember we do stick dishes in the dishwasher that have had raw meat on them, Chapman said, and eat from them later. “The raw meat dishes are riskier and they're low risk.” So sharing a plate with a dog — after the plate’s been through the dishwasher — “is really really low risk,” he said, “but dinner guests may not like it.” If that bothers anyone who might be coming to my house anytime soon, consider yourselves warned.
More Thanksgiving tips and recipes
- First course: Roasted butternut squash soup or green salad with butternut squash, pear and goat cheese
- Side dish ideas: Roasted butternut squash with sage and roasted Brussels sprouts
- Martha Stewart says this is the easiest way to host Thanksgiving dinner
- A Thanksgiving salad so good your family will ask for seconds
- Set the table early, and other pro tips for Thanksgiving hosts