Prepare Your Thanksgiving Stuffing Safely

Thanksgiving Dinner

There’s no denying that the turkey is the star of the Thanksgiving table. But it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner without the trimmings, especially the stuffing.

In culinary circles, the term “stuffing” is usually defined as a blend of bread seasonings, vegetables, and sometimes meat that is cooked inside the turkey. When it is cooked outside the bird in a casserole, it is generally referred to as “dressing”. However, these distinctions don’t necessarily hold true in different parts of the country. In the north, it’s usually called “stuffing” no matter where you cook it. In the south, it’s always referred to as “dressing”.

Call it what you will, this mixture, if not handled properly, can be the breeding ground for pathogens that can cause a foodborne illness. So as you prepare your stuffing/dressing this holiday, keep these simple tips in mind so that your mixture doesn’t contain any unwanted ingredients like bacteria:

  • Keep it clean — Wash your hands and your work surfaces frequently while you are handling ingredients. Bacteria spreads rapidly, and it can contaminate hands, cutting boards, knives, and countertops. When you wash your hands, always use warm water and soap, and rub your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing.
  • Don’t cross contaminate — Never completely prepare your stuffing/dressing ahead of time. The dry and wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time, as long as they remain separated and chilled. Bacteria breeds in warm environments. Only mix the wet and dry ingredients together when the stuffing/dressing is ready to be cooked. The final mixture should be moist, because heat destroys bacteria quicker in a moist environment. If you must prepare the stuffing beforehand because of the time element, cook it immediately, refrigerate it in a shallow container, and reheat before serving. Never stuff your turkey with cooked stuffing.
  • Bring it up to proper cooking temperature — If you stuff the turkey, use a food thermometer to determine the internal temperature of both the bird and the stuffing. Even if the turkey itself has reached the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 °F, so test it separately. The same is true for dressing cooked in a casserole. It should be tested with a food thermometer to be sure it has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
  • Refrigerate the leftovers ASAP — Store leftovers in shallow containers, and refrigerate or freeze the cooked stuffing within two hours after cooking. Bacteria is the most active in temperatures between 40 and 140 °F, so get the leftovers in the refrigerator before you put up the coffee.

There are a few other things to keep in mind about Thanksgiving leftovers. If you refrigerate them, use them within three days so that they will still be fresh and delicious.

If you uncover your leftover turkey, and you get an ammonia smell, discard it immediately. Also, if the turkey meat has a greenish tinge, or feels slimy, get rid of it. Never use any leftover turkey meat that doesn’t have a good color or appear moist.

Thanksgiving dinner is about making memeories. Take care with all of the food preparations so that all of your family’s memories are good ones.

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