How to cook a holiday meal without fear of food poisoning


When preparing meat, it’s always smart to use a food thermometer. (ISTOCKPHOTO)
November 18, 2013

Ham, turkey, duck, beef and pork roasts are all beloved parts of many holiday meals. But because a lot of us cook these only once or twice a year, we run a higher risk of preparation and cooking goof-ups that can, at best, compromise taste — and, at worst, make people sick.

Don’t want your guests to join the one in six Americans who get food poisoning each year? Use this guide to selecting, storing, cooking and serving those holiday staples.

Choose the right meat. If you’re picking up a roast from a refrigerated case at the supermarket, don’t take the package on top, especially if it’s sitting higher than the upper edge of the case, suggests Francis Largeman-Roth, a dietitian in New York. “Those cases only keep things truly cold as far as the walls of the case go up,” she says.

Look for cuts of meat that are lean, defined as having fewer than 10 grams of total fat, no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. The label can provide clues. For example, cuts that include the word “round” are the lowest in fat, with “loin” a close second, says Heather Mangieri, a dietitian in Pittsburgh and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Turkey and duck breasts are leaner than a whole bird.

And read the ingredients list on poultry items. Turkeys are sometimes injected with a solution of saltwater and other additives to enhance juiciness. That can add a lot of sodium, so it’s better to look for a turkey that contains nothing but, well, turkey.

Store and prep properly. How long one can keep a turkey before cooking it is one of the most common questions posed to the Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline around holiday time, according to dietitian and hotline staffer Tina Hanes. (To reach the hotline, call 888-674-6854 or send an e-mail to mphotline.fsis@usda.gov.) For a fresh turkey stored in the refrigerator, plan to use it within one or two days. A frozen bird can last a lot longer — up to a year in the freezer, Hanes says. Uncooked pork and beef roasts can last three to five days fresh in the fridge and four to 12 months in the freezer.

Thawing meat in the fridge is the simplest way to defrost it, but make sure you leave ample time: A large turkey requires at least 24 hours for every five pounds. Defrosting in cold water in the sink is quicker but more labor-intensive, since you should change the water every 30 minutes. If you’re crunched for time, you can defrost meat in a microwave, but cook it immediately afterward because some areas may have already started to cook. Never thaw meat on a counter, which will put it in the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees, where bacteria can multiply more rapidly.

And however tempting it is, experts say that you should avoid rinsing poultry (and fish) before cooking because doing so can splatter potentially contaminated droplets of water around your sink and kitchen.

Cook it enough. In a survey of 1,011 American adults by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 39 percent said that they had used a meat thermometer at some point in the past year. And only 8 percent said that they always used one. Even if you’re an experienced cook and think you can tell by color or texture if something is done, the experts who were consulted said the same thing: You can’t.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.

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