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Holiday Meat Safety Tips

Keep Your Celebration Safe From Foodborne Illness

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Holiday Meat Safety - Thanksgiving, Easter & Passover Meat Safety Tips
Photo © Maren Caruso / Getty Images

Holiday Meat Safety Tips

The holiday season is a time of festive celebrations accompanied by traditional sumptuous meals. But it's important to use good food handling practices to ensure that a food-related illness doesn't spoil your celebration.

Here are a few tips for proper handling and preparation of the most popular holiday meats.

Beef & Lamb

The popular holiday beef and lamb recipes will frequently call for marinating, sometimes for a few days. In these cases it's critical that the meat be kept chilled in the refrigerator for the entire time. Properly refrigerated, you can safely marinate meat for up to 5 days.

Use a meat thermometer or instant read thermometer to make sure meats are cooked to the appropriate degree of doneness. Roast beef, grilled steaks and lamb chops should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F.

Note that the minimum cooking temperature for ground meats is higher than that for whole retail cuts like steaks and chops. Ground meats should be cooked to at least 160°F.

Ham: Cooked or Fresh?

When purchasing a ham, think about whether you want a ready-to-eat ham or a fresh, uncooked ham. Uncooked hams must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F.

Ready-to-eat hams, including spiral-cut hams and fully cooked, unsliced hams, can be served cold or heated up. But if you do decide to reheat a pre-cooked ham, make sure that it reaches an internal temperature of 140°F in no less than two hours.

That means heating it in a 325°F or hotter oven. Why? Slow cooking at low temperatures can encourage the growth of bacteria, so if your oven isn't warm enough, even a pre-cooked ham could become a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria.

Turkey, Chicken & Other Poultry

Large celebrations call for large birds — and if you're using frozen poultry you'll need to plan ahead to safely thaw them.

That's because the only safe way to defrost frozen poultry is in the refrigerator. But if you've got a 20 pound turkey, don't expect it to thaw in the fridge overnight! Waking up on Thanksgiving morning to find your turkey still frozen solid might tempt you to try some very unsafe quick-thawing techniques. Don't let this happen to you!

Allow a full day in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds of chicken or turkey. And be sure to keep the bird on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator, too, so that any drippage doesn't contaminate foods on the shelves below.

When cooking, roast poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured with an instant-read thermometer in the deepest part of the thigh. And despite some experts who suggest that it's safe to cook stuffing in the bird, the reality is that it is next to impossible to properly heat stuffing that is located deep inside the bird's inner cavity.

The Trouble with Stuffing

The stuffing has to be heated to 165°F, which means that the the bird itself will be woefully overcooked by the time the stuffing is safe to eat.

[Also see: Homemade Stuffing Recipe]

But in reality, most people will likely remove the turkey from the oven well before it takes on that telltale blackened look, so the inevitable result will be dangerously undercooked stuffing, teeming with salmonella and other pathogens. It's not worth the risk. Prepare stuffing separately, either in the oven or on the stovetop.

Passover Seders

The traditional Passover meal can be tricky from a food safety standpoint because the entire meal must be prepared in advance. Beef brisket, a popular Passover dish, must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F.

After cooking, the brisket can be cooled, sliced and then transferred to serving platters and refrigerated. Right before the meal begins, the platters of brisket can be served straight out of the refrigerator. If you're serving the brisket hot, however, take care to reheat it thoroughly, which means to no less than 165°F, right before you serve it.

What About Leftovers?

No perishable food items should should ever be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Leftovers should be stored in shallow containers and refrigerated or frozen immediately. Any leftovers not eaten or frozen within 3 days should be discarded.

And remember, when reheating leftovers, the magic number is 165°F. Follow these guidelines and your holiday celebrations will be memorable — for all the right reasons!
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