Get stuffed safely this Thanksgiving

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

To stuff or not to stuff the turkey, that is often the question. Let's take a look at the safe way to get stuffed this Thanksgiving.

If you are planning to prepare stuffing, whether it is going inside the cavity of a turkey or into a casserole dish, use a meat thermometer. (Remember to come into our office by 5 p.m. Monday and register for the drawing for a free digital meat thermometer.)

Cooking a home-stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Bacteria can survive in stuffing which has not reached the safe temperature of 165 degrees, possibly resulting in foodborne illness.

Even if the turkey itself has reached the proper internal temperature of 180 degrees in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature in all parts of the stuffing sufficient to destroy foodborne bacteria.

Some turkeys purchased frozen have been stuffed at a plant under USDA inspection. These turkeys should be safe when cooked from the frozen state. Follow the manufacturer's package directions.

For stuffing cooked in a turkey or in a casserole dish, some basic rules should be followed. Care must be taken at the critical points of preparation, cooking and handling leftovers.

Prepare the stuffing safely by mixing the ingredients just before placing it inside the turkey or into a casserole dish. The turkey should be stuffed loosely -- about three-quarter cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.

The stuffed turkey should be placed in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. Cook until the center of the stuffing inside the turkey or in a casserole dish reaches 165 degrees. Let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing all stuffing and carving.

Within two hours of removing the turkey from the oven, cut turkey off the bones. Refrigerate the stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers. Freeze or use leftover turkey and stuffing within four days.

I can't over emphasize the safe handling of leftovers; especially observing the two-hour rule. If you read my column very often you know I mention the two-hour rule every chance I get. There's a good reason.

When I worked as an Extension Agent in Kansas, I received a call from a woman who wanted her well tested because members of her family were on occasion having flu-like symptoms. She was sure it was related to a contaminant in her water. The tests came back with no contaminants. She was perplexed.

I started asking her many probing questions about the timing of these illnesses and so forth. What we discovered is that her family was getting ill every time she prepared frozen leftovers from the Thanksgiving dinner.

She had left the meat and stuffing out at room temperature all afternoon so the family could "piece on it" while they watched football games. This is a real-life lesson in showing that freezing does not destroy bacteria that causes foodborne illness and the importance of observing the two-hour rule.

So please, observe the two-hour rule. The two-hour time begins once the food is exposed to temperatures between 40 to 140 degrees. Have a safe Thanksgiving!

Linda Athons is an agent at the Alaska Cooperative Extension office on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Soldotna. She is a home economist and involved in the 4-H/Youth Development programs.

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