Thanksgiving dinner is probably the biggest meal you will cook all year, and it’s no time to get sloppy with food safety. Whether it’s more food than your fridge can hold, or what to do with your leftovers, you need to have a plan. Planning will not only reduce your stress, it will make it easier for you and your guests who want to help.
You’re likely having turkey, and you’re facing the annual dilemma of to stuff or not to stuff… The main concern about stuffing the turkey is the need for the stuffing inside the turkey to reach a temperature of 165°. For that to happen it often means overcooking the turkey. This doesn’t have to happen, and you can stuff your turkey! There is a great article in Cooks Illustrated Magazine outlining the best and safest method to stuff a turkey using hot stuffing. I used this method and it was even easier than it sounds, and for me, stuffing is always better cooked in the turkey! Like most people my age, I was raised on stuffing cooked inside the turkey, and I don’t recall anyone getting sick, and yet it’s hard to ignore all the talk of potential illness.
If you’re brining your turkey, and these days it’s almost obligatory, you need to be careful to keep that turkey cold throughout the process, and once you dispose of the brine itself, to thoroughly sanitize your sink, where you are likely going to wash vegetables etc. To do this, you can use commercial sanitizer, or you can make your own by mixing a dilution of bleach in water of 1 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water. That bird is probably pretty big, and will require a lot of handling, and may not fit on a cutting board. You shouldn’t do anything else while you are preparing the raw turkey; this will minimize the chance of cross contamination, and then when you are done and the turkey is ready for the oven, sanitize all your counters, wash your hands very well, and then start on the rest of the cooking. If you are using a cooler to brine your turkey I recommend lining the cooler with a clean trash bag, or dedicating a cooler for just turkey brining.
After a delicious dinner, everyone is feeling full and relaxed, and all that food has been sitting around now for at least an hour, if not two. It’s time to get those leftovers into the fridge! Take a break between dinner and dessert, rally the troops and put all the leftovers into containers, and into the ridge. Cut any remaining turkey off the bones, remove any stuffing still inside and put it all away. With all the cooking you do on Thanksgiving Day, your kitchen is probably close to eighty degrees, and that is not a safe temperature for food to sit around. Bacterial growth reaches dangerous levels at temperatures between 40º and 140º, so your tropical kitchen is the right environment for that growth. Bacterial growth is exponential, which means it doubles hourly, and those hours begin shortly after you remove the food from the oven.
If you don’t have enough room in your fridge and you live where it’s cold out in late November (consistently below 40°) you can store your food outside. My mom lived in western Massachusetts and had a screened in porch and that’s where we would leave the leftovers, but if you’re not sure, don’t risk it! If you’re packing leftovers for departing guests to take home, try to get them (the leftovers, not the guests) cold before they leave, then pack them with ice, or in a thermal bag and make sure they store them in the (cold) trunk rather than in the warm car, especially if they have a long ride ahead of them.
Once you’ve carved the meat off the turkey carcass don’t throw it out! It will be great for soup, either over the weekend, or sometime over the coming weeks. If you’re not planning on using it in the next two or three days, freeze it. There is no need to defrost it to make soup. Next week I’ll be offering some great Thanksgiving leftover ideas, including for soup.
For last minute tips check out these posts:
If you have any last minutes questions, please let me know and I’ll be happy to answer them by email.