COLORADO — Thanksgiving is fast approaching and with the coronavirus spreading throughout the state, a lot of Coloradans may be preparing their first turkey on Nov. 26.
The United States Department of Agriculture has tips for new and experienced Thanksgiving chefs alike. Everything starts with four simple steps: clean, separate, cook and chill.
Patch spoke with USDA Technical Specialist Meredith Carothers about how to have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving in the age of COVID-19.
Cleaning is the first and easiest step. Cooks should wash their hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds, recommendations made familiar to everyone at the onset of the pandemic.
Utensils and cooking surfaces should also be scrubbed down. That means washing surfaces with hot water, soap and a rag. Then sanitize those surfaces to kill bacteria. The USDA recommends using commercially-available sanitizers.
Surfaces should be re-cleaned after they come in contact with raw meat and poultry.
Keep raw meat and poultry away from ready-to-eat foods, Carothers said. Ready-to-eat foods should not come into contact with any uncleaned surfaces used by raw meats.
If counter space is limited, make sure you clean surfaces used by raw meats before they are used for other foods.
All meats should be cooked to a safe internal temperature to ensure you're killing all bacteria, Carothers said. Turkeys should be cooked to 165 degrees and chefs should check the turkey's temperature in three places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh.
Every year, USDA fields problems from cooks who relied solely on a turkey's pop-up thermometer. Carothers said that device only checks the bird's temperature in one place, when three spots must be checked.
(Coloradans who enjoy a ham on Thanksgiving can find tips for cooking on the USDA website.)
Turkey and other foods should only be left in the open air for two hours, Carothers said. Leftovers should be stored in fridges after 120 minutes to prevent foodborne bacteria from multiplying.
The USDA recommends cooks slice up large food items (like turkeys!) into smaller portions before storing them.
The Most Common Mistake
Cooks often struggle to appropriately thaw their turkeys, Carothers said.
"We condemn a number of turkeys every year because people don't thaw it safely," she told Patch. "Turkeys are pretty big and they can take a long time to thaw."
Turkeys should not be thawed at room temperature because of the dangers foodborne bacteria can create. Instead, cooks should thaw their turkeys in their refrigerator.
For every 5 pounds of turkey, 24 hours of thawing in a fridge is necessary. A 15 pound turkey would need three days in the fridge to thaw.
"You might add another day to that if the fridge is especially cold," Carothers said.
If Thanksgiving arrives and the turkey is still not thawed, cooks can simply give their bird a bath.
The USDA recommends turkeys be kept in their packaging and then placed in cold water (either in a sink or a cooler) to speed up thawing on Thanksgiving. The water will help prevent bacteria from accumulating, but will also facilitate thawing.
COVID-19 in the Kitchen?
Luckily, there's little threat of coronavirus infecting people through food and packaging, Carothers said.
"There's no strong evidence that COVID can be transferred through food or food packaging. Follow safety steps as you normally would, and then wash your hands regularly," Carothers told Patch.
If new cooks, or experienced chefs, need help, the USDA will be there to help. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-674-6854 and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The hotline will also be open on Thanksgiving, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cooks can also talk to a food safety expert online via ask.usda.gov.