Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
Step away from the sink, and no one will get hurt.
You don't need to wash your turkey before you roast it, and doing so can be dangerous. A British study found that washing poultry in the sink can spray bacteria up to 3 feet away. And with one in 50 turkeys estimated to be contaminated with salmonella, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food-safety inspectors, you don't want a mist of turkey juice on your relish platter.
Salmonella bacteria can cause salmonellosis, with symptoms of diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps developing 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days.
Given this contamination rate, the chef's job is to keep the raw turkey juices away from anything that isn't going to be cooked to 165 degrees, the temperature required to kill disease-causing bugs. Unfortunately, too many people start their feast preparations by plopping their turkey in the sink and giving it a good wash.
There's no need to do that. It's a holdover from long ago when poultry routinely arrived with bits of blood and pinfeathers still attached. Cooks were instructed to wash the carcass well and use tweezers to remove any feathers that didn't get plucked. With today's modern processing, none of that is necessary. You just want to get the turkey into its pan and into the oven with as little dripping and splashing as possible.
"The heat will take care of whatever might be on the surface of the turkey," says Howard Seltzer, national education adviser for the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
"The magic number is 165," he says. "Stick the thermometer into the breast and then both thighs, and make sure that that bird is 165 throughout."
That, of course, requires a meat thermometer, preferably one of the newer instant-read thermometers. They're usually for sale near the turkeys at the supermarket.
You, of course, thawed the turkey in the refrigerator, not in a sink of warm water, didn't you? Even though it took three or four days. If you didn't and you're staring at 15 pounds of frozen gobbler, don't plop it in a sink full of hot water to thaw. The biocontamination possibilities give food-safety experts the heebie-jeebies.
Embrace the frozenness of your bird and consider the methods available for roasting a frozen turkey. Go here to find out how: http://usat.ly/vJOnCB
If it's a lack of refrigerator space that's impeding your thawing, Doug Powell, a food-safety scientist at Kansas State University, notes that in any Northern climate, you can simply put the turkey outside in the garage in a closed cooler to keep out pets and vermin. His department wrote a paper on the topic and found that as long as the temperature is below 40 to 45 degrees it's perfectly safe.
As to the rest of the meal, make sure when you're cutting celery and other items that you're using a cutting board the raw turkey hasn't touched, Seltzer says. If you've got only one cutting board, use hot, soapy water to clean it each time you switch between foods.
After that, it's pretty much the two-hour rule for everything else. Cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, vegetables all can sit out for about two hours before they need to be refrigerated. If they need to be warmed up, a quick stint in the microwave works. Stuffing, if it's got meat in it or was cooked inside the turkey, should be at 165 degrees as measured with a food thermometer. Just poking to see if it's warm isn't enough. Heat gravy to a boil, Seltzer says. "Any bacteria will succumb when they hit 165 degrees," he says.
Once you're done with dinner, and everyone's done picking, it's time to refrigerate. Your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees or less. You can't really trust most built-in refrigerator thermometers, so Seltzer suggests buying one.
It's easiest for things to chill quickly if you put them in relatively small packages rather than one huge lump. Your goal is to quick-chill to stop bacteria from growing. Once they're safely in the fridge, "They're typically good for three to four days or two to three months frozen," Seltzer says. "There aren't too many bugs out there that can survive at zero degrees."
Then there's the big question of whether it's safe to lick the beaters when you're making dessert. According to the Food and Drug Administration, approximately one in 20,000 eggs is contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis, the most common type of illness-causing salmonella. Benjamin Chapman, a professor of food safety at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, says he's content to "let others make their own risk decisions."
But for himself and his family, the answer is no.