turkey

Handling Food Leftovers

So, you know how to cook a turkey until it is safe to eat; but what about handling the leftovers?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

turkeyEven though many Americans are eating more meals out of the home and some are turning to “meal kits” to make it pretty painless to cook dinner, we still like to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving. Green bean casserole, maybe some roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed white and/or sweet potatoes (with or without marshmallows), stuffing or dressing, and gravy will share the dinner plate with the main attraction, turkey. And more likely than not, way too much food for one meal.

Whether it’s their very first or they are a poultry seasoned veteran, many cooks know that the important thing is to cook a turkey until it reaches a safe temperature—165 degrees F in the thickest part of the thigh. They would not even think twice about eating an undercooked turkey—fearful of the risk of Salmonella or other foodborne pathogen that may be lurking the raw turkey meat. Home cooks, for the most part, have learned that a food thermometer is an essential tool for ensuring that the turkey and stuffing reach the safe end cooking temperature.

But, in what seems like the blink of an eye, the Thanksgiving meal that took hours or days to prepare is enjoyed by all. The turkey is no longer stuffed. But your guests are. What do you do with the leftovers?

Despite the belief that leftovers are yucky (too often dried out during the recook), most of us love the leftovers from a turkey dinner. Keep in mind that it is important to handle the unserved turkey and all the fixings safely if you want to enjoy them for days or even weeks (if frozen) after the holiday.

Consumers generally are less aware of the risks of turkey or other perishable foods once they have been cooked. They know that proper cooking destroys the bacteria or other microorganisms often found in raw foods. Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli and Campylobacter are bacteria that cause foodborne illness. And they are destroyed by proper cooking. So once the turkey (and other foods) are cooked, we assume that our worries are over. The Salmonella is gone, kaput, right?

Unfortunately, the answer can be misleading. Yes, the Salmonella is gone. But there are other bad guys stalking the cooked turkey, the gravy or even the mashed potatoes.

Once a food is cooked there is the risk that other pathogens can contaminate it. Microorganisms that can affect cooked food include Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus. All of these bacteria cause what is commonly called an intoxication or true food poisoning. Both Staphylococcus and Bacillus cereus can form toxins in a contaminated food product. The food is contaminated by the bacteria that may come from the kitchen environment, pets, soil, dirty hands, or a cook who is sick. The bacteria forms a toxin in the food and then you get sick when you eat the food. Because toxins are already present in the food, illness usually comes quickly—within 4-12 hours or so. You feel really awful for 24-48 hours with vomiting and/or diarrhea, depending on the amount of toxin in the food and characteristics of the pathogen. Generally these illnesses do not kill you—you just wish you were dead! Clostridium perfringens, on the other hand, contaminates the food and once consumed, produces a toxin in your intestines. It is still a toxin forming bacteria, and symptoms still include diarrhea. But, like the other toxin related illnesses listed here, generally, the illness is not terribly severe and you recover within 24-48 hours.

If you are a healthy person, these illnesses are generally self-limiting: once the toxin is expelled from the body, you recover. However, as with all foodborne illness, people who have compromised immune systems (because they have certain other diseases or take medications that weaken the immune system) are much more likely to suffer serious consequences.

The good news is that these illnesses are easily prevented. Handle leftovers safely and you will not have to spend Black Friday (or Saturday or Sunday, for that matter) in the restroom.

Get the remaining appetizers into the fridge before dinner is even served. After enjoying your meal, quickly work on the dinner leftovers. Cut the turkey off the bones, remove all stuffing, storing it separately. The same is true of mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole and any other cooked leftovers. Once vegetables are cut open and made into salads, they, too, are at risk for contamination. Refrigerate any cooked or cut vegetables or fruits, including salads or relish trays right after dinner as well. You want these foods to cool quickly, so place in shallow containers (no more than 3 inches deep). And, don’t forget the condiments. Butter, cranberry sauce, corn relish, while somewhat less risky, should be returned to the refrigerator as soon as possible.

Even if you get those leftovers refrigerated right after dinner, keep in mind that they won’t last forever. If you don’t think you will be able to eat them within 3-4 days, then it is best to freeze them. Place in shallow freezer containers, label with contents and date and freeze for up to 3-6 months for best quality. If not frozen, leftover cooked meats and vegetables will be safe for up to 3-4 days in a refrigerator kept at no more than 40 degrees F.

Once the food is safely tucked away for the night, it’s time to wash the dishes.

For more information about safe food preparation during the holidays, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, or foodsafety.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

5 Tips for a Food Safe Thanksgiving

turkeyWASHINGTON — This week millions of Americans will gather family and friends around the dinner table to give thanks. But for those preparing the meal, it can be a stressful time. Not to mention, for many it is the largest meal they have cooked all year, leaving plenty of room for mistakes that could cause foodborne illness.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking of food can lead to serious foodborne illness,” said Al Almanza, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Turkeys may contain Salmonella and Campylobacter, harmful pathogens that are only destroyed by properly preparing and cooking the turkey. Similarly, leaving leftovers out for too long, or not taking care to properly clean cooking and serving surfaces, can lead to other types of illness. We want to be sure that all consumers know the steps they can take and resources that are available to them to help prepare a safe and enjoyable holiday meal. ”

To avoid making everyone at the table sick, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers five tips for a food safe Thanksgiving:

Tip 1: Don’t Wash That Turkey.

According to the most recent Food Safety Survey, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, 68 percent of the public washes whole turkey before cooking it. USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking. Washing raw meat and poultry can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, frying or grilling) meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria that may be present, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.

Tip 2: Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey.

There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to your microwave’s owner’s manual. Cold water and microwave thawing can also be used if your bird did not entirely defrost in the refrigerator.

Tip 3: Use a meat thermometer.

The only way to determine if a turkey (or any meat, poultry or seafood) is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer. A whole turkey should be checked in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165°F in all three of these places. The juices rarely run clear at this temperature, and when they do the bird is often overcooked. Using the food thermometer is the best way to ensure your turkey is cooked, but not overdone.

Tip 4: Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold.

Storing food outside is not food safe for two reasons. The first is that animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it. The second is temperature variation. Just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (above 40°F). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40°F) is in a cooler with ice.

Tip 5: Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within 2 hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.

Want additional food safety tips?

If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. Last November they answered more than 3,000 calls about Thanksgiving dinner. You can also chat live with a food safety expert at AskKaren.gov, available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET.

Consumers with food safety questions can visit FoodSafety.gov to learn more about how to safely select, thaw and prepare a turkey. For more Thanksgiving food safety tips, follow FSIS on Twitter,@USDAFoodSafetyThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., or on Facebook, at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.